“Come away from there. You’ll get a cold in your eye.”
“Oh, Auntie! How can you get a cold in your eye?” The kitten snorted with laughter. “Colds are in your nose!”
She remained stubbornly in the same place, sitting right in front of the mysterious black box, one blue eye pressed up against the shiny circle.
“What are you doing anyway?”
“I’m looking for the Tiny Village. I think it’s in here.”
She turned her head, surruptitiously blinking to disguise the slight squint she had developed from hours of peering into the darkness.
“I’ve heard the hoomins talking about it. The reason we’re here is because there’s this tiny village, and they’re always fussing around with this box with the shiny circle on the front and moving it around and fretting when we knock it down…I suppose because all the people would fall over.”
She reapplied her eye to the glass lens of the camera, confident that, if she concentrated very hard, she would be able to make out the tiny streets and buildings and the even tinier hoomins, who she knew for a fact were living inside.
Auntie smiled. “Sweetheart, I don’t think it’s literally a village. I think it means something else. Why don’t you come away before you do yourself a mischief.”
“Hmmmm…” mused the kitten. “Perhaps it’s night and that’s why I can’t see anything.”
“Let me see if I can explain this to you,” said Auntie. “Come and sit on the blanket and I’ll tell you a story.”
The kitten reluctantly turned away from the camera and sat down on the blanket next to her aunt. From all corners of the room, other kittens – her brothers, sisters and cousins, piled onto the blanket with her, their paws tucked under, their ears forward. They loved auntie’s stories. Auntie cleared her throat, and began.
“Once upon a time, there was a young kitten, who lived with her large, extended family on the edge of a big, dark forest.”
“What colour was she?” demanded the kitten.
“She was white. Now, settle down and let me…”
“What colour were her eyes?”
“They were blue. Now, can I continue?”
“She was a happy kitten but, amongst all of her family, she was the most adventurous and this sometimes got her into trouble.”
“Was she floofy?”
“Enough questions now. Yes, she was floofy. White, with blue eyes and floofy – very much like you in fact.”
The kitten preened a little.
“One day, when she was out playing with her brothers and sisters, she caught sight of something wonderful fluttering across the farmyard. She had never seen anything so bright or so colourful or anything that moved in such an alluring fashion. She felt compelled to follow it as it flittered and skittered through the undergrowth, occasionally alighting on a flower, then dancing away again into the air. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen and she didn’t want to lose sight of it, so she ran through the grasses and the flowers and the bushes, desperate to keep up with it. The elusive, jewel-like creature never seemed to stop for more than a second before it was off again in another direction and she was mesmerised, so she ran and she ran, trying to catch up to it. As she emerged from a thick patch of bracken, she caught sight of her quarry dancing in a beam of sunlight, before it rose up and up, finally disappearing amongst the thick canopy of the trees.”
“What was it?” demanded the kitten on the blanket.
“It was a butterfly,” replied auntie.
“Like that one?” The kitten indicated the bent and broken wire, at the end of which a replica butterfly occasionally flapped in a desultory fashion, all but defeated by the relentless onslaught of nine kittens and the occasional adult who was old enough to know better.
“Not really…” Auntie sighed. “Anyway…the kitten lost sight of her butterfly so she thought she should probably head home. She’d been gone longer than usual and they would be wondering where she was. She turned around to retrace her steps, then she realised she had no idea which way to go. She had followed the butterfly hither and thither and she hadn’t made a note of all the ways she had turned. She peered into the trees ahead of her. They looked exactly the same as the trees behind her, which were exactly the same as the trees on either side of her. She was lost…and quite alone.”
The kitten’s blue eyes were like saucers, and she gave a little gasp. Auntie loved a captive audience.
“She wandered around for a while, looking for something – anything – that looked familiar, but every mossy stone looked like every other mossy stone and every log looked like every other log and she realised it was hopeless. Sitting down under a tall tree, she began to weep.”
The kitten sniffled a little and her lip wobbled. “But, what if she never gets home…?”
“Ssshhh…” said Auntie. “Let me carry on.”
“She didn’t know how long she sat beneath the tree, or how many tears she wept but, after a while, she felt something hard hit her on the head and bounce off. Looking down, she saw an acorn near her foot. A second later, another one bounced off her skull onto the ground. Her tears ceased for a minute and she looked upwards. Above her, clinging to the trunk of the tree, its beady black eye staring directly into hers, was a squirrel. He had an armful of acorns and he was frozen in the act of aiming another one at her woolly head.
“Oy” she said, scowling. “That hurts.”
“Sorry.” replied the squirrel. “Couldn’t resist. You’re so shiny white, you stick out a mile in the forest. What the heck are you doing here?”
“Oh, I was chasing a beautiful fairy creature through the forest and it disappeared and now I don’t know which way I came and I can’t find my way home…” the tears began to flow again.
“Well, I expect I can help you.” said the squirrel. “Tell me what your home looks like, and I’ll climb the tallest pine tree and scan the horizon until I see it, then you’ll know which way to go.”
She described the place with the houses and the cosy barn where she had been born and then she described all her brothers and sisters and all the adult cats in the colony and…
“Whoa!” said the squirrel. “My eyesight isn’t that good! I may be able to spot the buildings from up here, but I can’t recognise all your relatives.” He scanned the horizon, just like he promised. “Does the house have a red roof?”
“Does the barn have a big double door and a green tractor outside?”
“OK…” The squirrel scurried back down the trunk. “Follow me.”
Together, they dashed across the forest floor, the kitten having to run full pelt to keep up. Every now and then, the squirrel would point out places of interest (to him)…”I buried some acorns under that tree there….that bush has the best hazelnuts…blackberries are really nice, but they don’t store well…” She had no idea what a hazelnut or a blackberry was, but she feigned interest nonetheless.
The forest began to get darker and there was a chill in the air. She wished she was back at home – they would be getting ready for their evening meal, then it would be after-dinner play time, then nap time all snuggled together… She wondered if they had missed her.
“Of course they missed her! I bet they were all out looking for her…” The kitten’s eyes were moist.
“Sshh,” said Auntie once again.
“After a while, the squirrel stopped in his tracks. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but it’s getting dark and I can’t find my way around at night. I have to get back to my own tree.”
“But… please don’t leave me alone out here!” the kitten pleaded.
“Of course I won’t. I can’t travel at night, but I know someone who can.”
She heard a flapping and a rustling in the branches and a huge bird descended from a tall oak tree and alighted in front of them.
“This is owl.” said the squirrel. “She will help you now.” He turned around and scurried back the way they had come.
The owl regarded her with enormous yellow eyes. “I can’t take you far…” she hooted, “as I get around by flying and you can only run along the ground, but I can keep you safe until it’s light. Follow me.”
She stretched her enormous wings and flew up into the lowest branch of the oak tree. “Come on, you can climb this far I think. Really dig those claws in.”
The kitten was tired and cold and afraid, but she made the effort and found the rough bark was easier to climb than she had imagined. She scrambled onto the branch next to the owl.
“You must be starving.” said Owl. “Here…”
She stuck her feathery head into a hollow and pulled out a dead mouse, which she laid before the kitten, who grimaced.
“Come on, eat up!” said the owl. “This is the food of your ancestors.”
Hunger overcame her squeamishness and, closing her eyes, she bit into the flesh. It wasn’t the same as the bowls of soft meat paste which she was used to, and she wasn’t sure what to do with the boney bits, but it was better than nothing.
Soon it was completely dark and very cold. The owl stretched out her wing.
“Snuggle under here.” she said. “In the morning you can continue your journey.”
So, the kitten snuggled under the owl’s great wing and slept as best she could, although she was constantly afraid she might fall off her branch. Still, she was warm and she felt safe.
At dawn, the owl yawned and opened her wings, exposing the kitten to the chill of the morning. The sudden cold came as a shock and her fur was a little damp in places, but she was ready to face the next stage of her journey.
“I don’t travel much in the daytime,” said the owl, “so I can’t guide you home and, what’s more, the eagle has been spotted hunting for his breakfast and he could easily grab a small creature like you. whose fur shines like the sun. I will hand you over to my friend here.”
At the bottom of the tree, the kitten was startled to see the ground appear to move and ripple, then swell into a small mound. Her eyes grew wide with astonishment as a shiny black head burst through the soil and spoke to her – even though the strange new creature was facing the wrong way.
“I’m mole,” he announced, to nobody.
“Ahem…” she gave a polite little cough, and the mole swivelled round.
“Beg your pardon,” he said, “I don’t see so well Follow me.”
She was shocked when the little creature dived back underground and she realised she was expected to follow.
“But my fur will get all dirty!”
“You can worry about that later. First, we have to get you home.”
Reluctantly, she followed the mole down the hole he had made and she was surprised to find herself in a perfect little tunnel – warm and dry and free of worms, with just a few odd plant roots poking through the roof. She followed the mole as he waddled along his network of tunnels, sometimes branching off into another – just as neat as the first – and turning left, then right, then left again. She had no idea how he could possibly know where he was going. At last, the mole stopped and stuck his head up, sniffing the air with his pink snout.
“This is where I have to stop. We’ve reached the river and I cannot cross, so I will hand you over to someone who can help you continue your journey. That way, please.” The mole pointed his spade-like paw upwards and she noticed a small air shaft leading back up to ground level. She emerged into the cold air to find herself on the bank of a wide river, which flowed through the forest in lazy meanders. It looked very deep and very dark, although she was fascinated by the darting silver shapes she could see under the surface. A magnificent white bird paddled serenely and silently into view and stopped in front of her.
“I’m Swan,” said the swan, bending his long, elegant neck and putting his face up to hers. “I can get you across the river, but no more. I’m a water fowl and my home and family are here, so I cannot stray too far from the banks. Climb aboard.” He turned around and moved his snowy wings aside so she could see his broad, strong back. Gingerly, she slithered down the bank and climbed aboard the swan, being careful to keep her claws retracted so as not to damage any of his pristine feathers. Gently and quietly, they sailed across the river, hardly even disturbing the water. She caught sight of the darting silver shapes under the surface once again and only just resisted the temptation to dabble her paws into the water to catch them. Her swan ride was stately and dignified – concepts previously unknown to the rambunctious kitten – and she felt that she would rather like to do this again some day. “Are we nearly there yet?” she asked, but received no reply. They reached the far bank. She thanked the swan and watched as he turned and scudded away. Another bird, just as beautiful, met him in the middle of the river, and they both dipped their heads and touched their foreheads together, forming a heart shape with their necks, before disappearing together downstream.
“Watcha.” said a voice, and she looked up to see a cheerful looking red fox regarding her with amusement, his head cocked on one side.
“Don’t I know you?” asked the kitten.
“Yep,” he replied. “I hang around your place all the time. The pickings are good and I can eat well there.”
“Is it far away?” she asked. “I’m afraid my family will be missing me.”
“They are.” he said. “They’re quite frantic. I promised them I would look for you, so I put the word out for everyone in the forest to keep an eye out for you. Now, let’s get going”
He set off at a trot, the white kitten at his heels. She was now even more desperate to get home, knowing her family was worrying about her and, besides, she missed them – even her boisterous brothers, who jumped on her back and chewed her ears.
Soon, the trees began to thin and give way to hazel and hawthorn bushes, then tall grasses, then…a familiar yard, a house with a red roof, a barn with a big double door and a green tractor…
She squealed with delight as she saw her family, all running towards her. The adult cats greeted her by frantically washing her face and head, her brothers greeted her by jumping on her back and chewing her ears – but she didn’t mind. She was home. She turned to the fox, who was already trotting away across the yard.
“Where are you going? Can’t you stay?”
“No can do.” said the fox. “I have important business to attend to, but I’ll let them know you made it home safe.”
“Tell them I’m grateful.” she called.
“They know.” he called back, as his thick red brush disappeared around the corner of the barn.
It was quite the reunion. The kitten spent the evening having the mud and soil and bits of twig bathed off her by at least three adults, then – just this once – she got first pick at the food bowl. After all the excitement, she cuddled up with her family, warm and snug, and slept the night away.”
The white kitten on the blanket heaved a deep sigh. “I knew she’d get home in the end.” she declared.
“Yes, she made it home none the worse for her adventure, thanks to lots of help from lots of very different and sometimes surprising sources. And that, you see, is how a village works. It’s not about streets and houses and churches and things, it’s about people (and animals) all helping each other in the best way they can. Maybe the kitten could have found her way home unaided, but it’s unlikely. She needed each of those other animals to help her in the only way they knew how. The squirrel could climb to the top of the tall tree, the owl could shelter her from the night, the mole could keep her safe from the eagle, the swan could negotiate the river and the fox wasn’t afraid to approach the farmyard.”
“So, there isn’t really a tiny village inside the box?” The white kitten was a little disappointed.
“No, of course not. The hoomins are simply talking about all the people who help them to help us, in whatever way they are best able. Now, nap time. The others didn’t even make it to the end of the story.”
The blanket was covered in slumbering kittens. The white kitten yawned and stretched and decided that a quick snack was in order before her nap. On her way to the dish, she couldn’t resist one last peer into the camera lens – just to make absolutely sure, you know?
On the other side of the lens, the tiny village watched silently as the turquoise blue marble seemed to fill the whole sky, shutting off the light and plunging all into total darkness. Then, it withdrew and the light flooded back.
“All clear!” shouted a voice.
And the tiny village went about its business.
Here’s a not-so-little something that I wrote and submitted for a different charity project. It was written at the beginning of 2016 and the characters in it are based on those I meet weekly in the feral run at the cat rescue where I volunteer. Some of you may have read it already, but I’ve never published it here before. It’s a longer read than usual, and differs slightly from my usual style, (I also think it would benefit from the attention of a good editor) but I hope you will enjoy it anyway. Since I wrote it, Big George and shy Bonnie have crossed over the Bridge, and Rupert has found a home (never really feral, if truth be told). Dear old Norris and Henrietta are still with us and I visit them every Saturday, and I listen while they tell me their tales all over again….
He sat, crouched uncomfortably on his haunches, in a manner designed to facilitate a quick escape. All four of his feet were underneath him, paw pads to the floor, ready to provide lift and propulsion should he find himself threatened, but he had been sitting like that for many hours now and his joints were feeling stiff and sore. He doubted that he would be able to spring anywhere, even if a sudden fire were to break out right in front of him. His view of the world was small and arch-shaped, its edges defined by the small entrance hole in the front of the green plastic kennel in which he crouched. Outside his confined little world, he could hear the sounds of both cats and humans, all of them seemingly at peace with the world. But still Rupert crouched, afraid to put his nose outside, afraid of what – or who – lay beyond.
He had little idea of how he had come to be there – a scent, which he had followed, a tempting dish of food, which he had investigated, a clang, sudden darkness, movement, a strange pointy thing which had been inserted….well, never mind. And here he now was. Surrounded by cats he did not know and, to his horror, humans in close proximity. He had seen one wielding a long pole with what appeared to be a dead cat on the end and had watched, horrified, while the dead cat had been dunked headfirst into soapy water and pushed around the ground. So undignified! Such disrespect! He had sent a prayer up to the Moon for the poor dead cat’s soul before retreating back inside his green bolt-hole.
Hunger was becoming a problem. He could feel the familiar gnawing sensation starting up in his gut. Before, he would have waited until dark and then crept out of his barn, across the rubble-strewn yard and under the barbed wire fence to where the bins stood behind the noisy building. If the humans were still there, shouting to each other and making their usual racket, he would have crouched in the shadows until they had finally disappeared, before jumping on the tall bin with the ill-fitting lid. This was where the easiest pickings were to be had. If he was lucky, he would find the remains of a half-eaten meat pattie of some sort, or a morsel of sausage, maybe some sticky batter with some shreds of fish still attached. More often, though, he had to restrict himself to sad gobbets of damp bread or short, thin lengths of fried potato. However, it was better than nothing. He would drag whatever he could find into the bushes before the squirrels moved in. Once they arrived en masse, there was no chance for a cat alone to find a meal. If he was exceptionally hungry, he would lurk a little longer in the bushes until the foxes had left. They were stronger than he and worked as a team, so often they were able to tip the whole bin over to get to the treasures within and, if he was lucky, there would be some morsels left over for him.
It wasn’t much of a life, he knew that. Once, he had been part of a proper extended family and they had eked out a living of sorts in the run-down collection of sheds and huts behind the fish and chip shop. There was food to be scavenged and shelter to be had amongst the rusting hulks of old motors, empty tanks and upturned oildrums, but all too often one of them would go out to look for food and never return, or would quietly leave one day without saying goodbye….you know. Then the humans had moved in and the whole area was transformed. The sheds were torn down and the vehicles and other detritus were removed and large stacks of bricks began to appear. Worse than that, though, he had returned home one day, triumphantly dragging a brown paper bag of untouched fish nuggets to share, to find himself alone. The rest of the colony – such as it was – had disappeared. He spent several days trying to find them with no success until he had sadly resigned himself to a solitary life. It made the scavenging easier, with only his own needs to cater for, but he missed having someone to snuggle with at night or to hide with when danger lurked. And now he was here. And he was hungry.
As he sat, trying to screw up his courage to venture outside to look for food, a round face, black bisected by a broad white flash, appeared in the entrance hole. Curious round eyes peered at him from close range – slightly too close for comfort – and a chirpy voice said “Are you ever going to come out?”
Rupert growled defensively. “Oh per-lease” said the chirpy cat. “You can knock that off. There’s cats here who could squash you with a single paw, if they wanted. They won’t, of course. I’m Henrietta. And you are…?”
“Well, come out and be social. The others are dying to meet you. By which I mean they’re sort of vaguely curious – between naps, anyway.”
Cautiously, Rupert emerged, moving slowly and keeping low so as not to appear a threat to his new neighbours, and took a proper look around him for the first time. He was inside a large, paved space enclosed by a high fence. All around him were structures, shelves, seats and platforms all perfect for sitting and watching and contemplating. And on most of them, sitting and watching and contemplating him, were cats. Most of them were males and most were substantially larger than himself. Between them, they boasted the finest collection of scars, missing ears and eyes, bent tails and battered faces he had ever seen. He imagined they all had a story to tell, if they could be bothered – even cheerful Henrietta, who sported a red scar on her nose and whose eyes spoke of a long life lived close to the edge.
A large, copper-coloured tom cat stood up, stretched languidly and approached Rupert, sniffing him and studying him closely with his one good eye. The other eye was missing, as was part of one of his ears. He introduced himself as George, and his every movement and gesture exuded authority. “Trapped, were you?” asked George in a rich, fruity voice. “Came here via the vet’s, I bet – I can smell it on you. Pointy thing up the….you know…?” Rupert nodded and there was a general murmur of empathy from all the other cats. He imagined that it did not pay to upset George, so he asked the old cat how he had come to be in this place, hoping that his story would include how he came to lose his eye and ear. Rupert was in full possession of all his limbs and organs – well, almost – and the old boy’s battle scars fascinated him.
Henrietta sidled up to him and whispered in his ear “Grab a snack first. This could take some time.”
He didn’t take her advice, but instead settled down in front of the old red cat and tucked in his paws, eager to learn more about these cats with whom he would, he was now realising, spend the rest of his life. George made himself comfortable on a small wooden box, and began to speak.
“The ocean has been my life. Shanghaied as a kitten, I was taken aboard the Royal Navy Man O’ War “Rangoon” and put to work catching mice and rats to earn my keep. I was given a bunk in the cook’s stores, sleeping amongst the sacks of meal and dried goods, and there was plenty to keep me busy I can tell you, as the entire lower ship was alive with rodents. Everything I caught was mine to eat so I dined well and my boss, the ship’s cook, made sure I had fresh water from the limited supplies on board. When the water ran low, I was given wine just like the crew and I was even allowed my weekly tot of rum, for which I developed quite a taste. I always enjoyed my job on rum days, because the mice took to running around in pairs, so doubling the target. Oddly, there seemed to be fewer to eat at the end of the hunt, but I didn’t mind as I usually slept exceptionally well. As the months and years passed, I grew plump and glossy and well-muscled. My fur glistened the colour of the copper anchor lantern and my eyes shone the colour of the brass watch bell. I was, to be brutally frank, irrestistible. And so, the inevitable came to pass…
We called one August at the port of Havana to take on fresh water and supplies and some of the crew were allowed to disembark to enjoy a little leisure time in the town. Officially, I never took leave, but on this occasion the lights of the city beckoned to me and I slipped un-noticed down the gangplank and into the shadows of the dock buildings. I followed my shipmates towards an area of bustling taverns and cafes, dodging between the legs of the humans thronging the street, my nose twitching at the glorious scent of cooking fish. Ducking into an alleyway between two brightly-lit buildings, I came to an open area behind one of the cafes, where the fragrance was so intense it was almost visible, hanging in the hot night air. Light streamed from an open door and, inside, I could see two young humans, their faces damp with sweat, cooking over glowing coals. And then, I saw her. She stepped out of the shadows and stood before me, her paw to her lips. I took in her midnight-dark fur, her eyes like green fire, her fine-boned face and long, slim body. Also the large cooked prawn that she held between her teeth. She was the most beautiful creature I had ever laid eyes on. The prawn looked pretty good too. Smiling seductively, she beckoned me to join her behind the cafe and bade me stay quiet while she worked her considerable charms on the cooks in the kitchen. She stretched her pretty neck and gazed up at them with those emerald eyes and purred and murred in a voice like liquid gold and, without a second thought, they tossed her prawns and crab claws and fish heads and tails, all of which she surreptitiously rolled to me with her paw. What a night we had. We dined sumptuously, teasing the sweet meats from the bones and shells with our claws, lapping up the rich sauces and letting the warm butter and oils run over our chops and onto our paws. Not a word passed between us, but she smiled her sultry smile at me over a cod’s head and we both knew how this night would end. The meal over, we walked together across the walls and roofs towards the shore and, as the moon rose over the ocean, we danced a passionate dance to the music of the waves. As the dawn broke, and I had to take my leave of her, I promised that I would return and that I would bring her whatever her heart desired. Looking up at the clear sky, she said “Bring me the moon”. Then she slipped away, back into the shadows, and I rejoined my ship – a changed cat.
As the ship cast off and headed out of the harbour, I stood up at the ship’s rail, watching the lights of the city grow smaller and smaller, until they were no more than a twinkle on the horizon, then I went below to the stores to be alone with my thoughts and did not emerge on deck again. I applied myself diligently to my job and the cook remarked that my mousing skills had been improved by my short stay on dry land and he rewarded me with a little rind cut from our stores of salt pork. In other circumstances, I would have savoured the tasty meat, but my mind turned constantly to that seafood feast beneath a tropic moon with the most beautiful dinner companion in the world. I was determined that she and I would meet again and I turned over and over in my mind how I might go about catching the moon to bring to her.
About a week out of port, the ship was struck by a terrible storm. I usually rode out rough weather by tucking myself into a small void behind the timbers in the hold and hunkering down with the mice, having called a temporary truce. This storm, however, was different. The ship lurched and buffeted crazily and the barrels and sacks were thrown around the hold. Above me, I could hear terrible creaking and cracking sounds and water began to seep in, then it began to gush, then it came in a torrent. In a panic, I ran for the wooden ladder that connected the deck to my domain and, by the time I reached the top, the ship was listing so far over that the main mast was practically touching the ocean. With a huge crack that made my ears ring, it snapped and I knew that we were doomed. I found myself, along with my shipmates, floundering and flailing in the swell, water filling my ears and eyes and soaking my coat, weighing me down until I could no longer keep my head above water. I sent up a prayer to the moon, asking her to light my star in the sky to guide me across the bridge, and resigned myself to my watery fate when, by a miracle, my paw grasped something solid. A plank which had splintered off from the disintegrating hull was within my reach and, with the last of my strength, I pulled myself onto it and crouched there, shivering and terrified, while the mighty Rangoon sank beneath the waves.
For three whole days and nights, I was frozen to that plank, my claws dug deep into the soaked timber, my ears full of seawater, my eyes clogged with salt and my beautiful copper coat stiff and matted and seared by the relentless sun. Weak from hunger and thirst, I was finally jolted out of my torpor when my plank bumped against something solid. Opening my salt-crusted eyes, I beheld before me the hull of another ship. At first, I believed I was dreaming that I had found the Rangoon again, but no – this was a different ship entirely. Her hull seemed to be intact, but her mast was broken in two and her sails were spread across her deck and flapped pitifully in the wind like tethered ghosts. A rope ladder was swinging freely over the side of the ship only a few yards from me so I paddled my plank towards it and, slowly and somewhat painfully, I climbed up, pulling myself over the rail and onto the deserted deck.
I set to making a brief search of the ship, moving quickly and keeping to the places where I knew I would be out of sight, just in case I stumbled into a member of the crew driven mad by hunger and armed with a cutlass. There seemed to be nobody aboard at all. Happily, I did find a pool of slightly sour but nonetheless drinkable fresh water in the galley and there was food there too. I knew from my years on the Rangoon how to break through the seals on the barrels to reach the foodstuffs inside and, on my third try, I found salt pork, which I chewed on hungrily. Above the galley was the Captain’s cabin, with its soft bed and linen sheets. Here I finally slept. I was a cat, alone on what seemed to be a ghost ship, with no idea where in the world I was, nor if I would ever see dry land again. But, at that time, the only thing that mattered was to sleep, which I did – the longest, deepest and most peaceful sleep I had ever had.
I woke, refreshed, long after sun up and set to learning more about my situation. From the deck, I could see that we were drifting idly, making slow, lazy rotations in the now calm sea. I could also see that the anchor chain was paid out behind the stern and I concluded that this vessel had probably been preparing to sail when the storm struck, when it dragged its anchor and was carried into the open ocean. Satisfied that I was alone on the ship, I decided to explore, as much to keep my mind off the uncertainty of my future as anything else, and I headed below deck to sniff around the cabins and holds. Apart from the broken main mast, the ship seemed perfectly seaworthy and was appointed to carry a few wealthy passengers as well as cargo. And it was in one of the passenger state rooms that I found it.
Following the unmistakeable skittering sound made by a fleeing mouse, I dived under a bunk and was stopped in my tracks by something glinting softly in the farthest corner. I reached out my paw and hooked the object, drawing it towards me. It was a band of heavy gold, the size of a human finger and, set into it, was a stone – a stone so softly luminous it appeared to be lit from within. A stone which was shot through with red and gold and green fire. A stone of such curvaceous smoothness that I was tempted to sample its surface with my tongue. I stared at it for a long, long time, watching the coloured flames dance in the milky depths, so mesmerised by its beauty that I did not at first notice that it was surrounded by small, clear stones like crystals of ice, which twinkled and sparkled with their own tiny rainbows – the Lady Moon in her firmament, surrounded by her courtiers. I could have wept at the irony that I had actually found it – the earthly embodiment of the Moon herself – but I was unable to present it to my beautiful dark lady as I had promised. I could have wept, but instead I became aware of human voices, and the sound of footsteps moving through the ship. I remained perfectly still in my dark corner under the bed and listened as humans ranged through every part of the ship, opening cupboards and chests, gathering up loose objects, shouting to each other in a language which I could not understand. I remained hidden until dusk, when I decided to venture out to see what I could see. Fastening the gold band with its precious cargo around my paw, I slipped out of the state room and onto the deck. I was surprised to see that we were moving. The broken mast had been lashed to the side of the ship, the loose sails roped into rolls and we were under tow behind a handsome merchantman flying the flag of the Dutch East India Company. By daybreak, I could see the line of a distant shore and, by noon, we were approaching a familiar port. My heart leaped with joy. Providence had brought me back to Havana.
It was dusk by the time we dropped anchor a mile or so from the port and I was able to slip on board one of the small boats which took the skeleton crew off the stricken vessel and onto the shore. From there I darted into the shadows and made my way through the thronging streets, back towards the little cafe where I had first met my love. I approached the back of the building, where the same two humans still toiled over their hot coals. They flung me a few pieces of fish and, as I ate, I peered all around me, hoping to catch a glimpse of her emerald eyes or her black velvet coat somewhere in the gloom, but there was no sign of her. I was not ready to give up, though, so I made my way back to the busy street in the hope of finding someone who could give me news of her whereabouts.
In a narrow alleyway off the main street my prayers were answered, after a fashion, and I found myself face to face with three large, aggressive looking tom cats, each sporting scars across their cheeks and notches in their ears. The leader, a once-handsome Siamese, blocked my path and demanded to know where I thought I was going. I told him about my beautiful lady, describing to him her lustrous fur the colour of a midnight sky, her eyes the shape of an almond and the colour of an ocean after a storm, her elegant, sinuous body and her voice like liquid gold. The Siamese laughed and, on cue, so did his two henchmen. “She’s too good for the likes of you.” he hissed, baring some impressive teeth. “She lives up there…” he jerked his head towards an imposing looking house, high on a hill over the town, “…and she just slips out every now and again for a bit of excitement and to sample life on the wrong side of the tracks. She has no interest in tramps and rat-catchers like you.” His blue eyes looked me all over and, inevitably, they alighted on the jewel still hooked around my paw. “What is this…?” His two lackeys peered around them in all directions. “THIS, you idiots!” He pointed at the ring and I knew I needed to beat a hasty retreat, although a quick scan of my surroundings suggested that this would be easier said than done. The alleyway ran between high buildings and escape was only possible at either end. If I turned my back, these three would pounce me for sure, so I steeled myself to face them head on. I was strong, I was fit and I had cunning. I suspected the Siamese could match me on that score, but his two sidekicks had clearly been selected for their bulk rather than their brains. I sent up a brief prayer to the Moon – she had answered before, when I was floundering in the ocean, and I was hoping that my credit with her was still good – took a deep breath, and crouched, snarling.
As the three cats leapt towards me, I kept low, trying to protect my eyes and ears and, of course, the ring on my paw. A fight ensued the like of which Havana had never before seen. We rolled, tumbled, lashed, slashed, flailed and bit. One of the henchmen caught my ear in his teeth and chomped down hard. Another slashed my eye with his claw. Clumps of fur flew and so did the curses. Blood streaked the alley floor and smeared the walls as I fought for my very life. Then, suddenly, we were stopped in our tracks by a freezing cascade as a human emptied a bucket of cold water from a high window onto all four of us. As a sailor, I was inured to the effects of a sudden soaking and I was able to recover while my adversaries were still in shock, wondering what had hit them. I took the opportunity to run and I ran like the wind and did not stop until I reached the garden of the imposing house on the hill.
Many times I circled that impressive building, calling my lady love’s name, but to no avail. Despairing of ever seeing her again, I took a big risk and jumped up onto the sill of one of the large windows and there, inside, I saw her, as beautiful as ever, curled up on the lap of a young she-human. I scratched at the glass with my paw until she looked up and turned those magnificent green eyes on me, without the smallest hint of recognition in them. She was about to lower her head and resume her interrupted doze when I held up my paw and she caught a glimpse of the radiant jewel which glowed and glistened upon it. At last, she jumped up on the inside windowsill and spoke to me in a low voice. “Who are you?” she asked. Aghast that she could not remember me, I reminded her. “We met behind the cafe, we shared a seafood banquet then we danced on the beach by the light of the August moon. When we parted, I offered you whatever your heart desired and you asked for the moon. And here it is. How can you not remember me?” She sighed, a little regretfully. “But I meet cats like you all the time. Havana is a magnet for travellers, explorers, sailors, fugitives and drifters from all corners of the earth. I meet them often, they all fall in love with me and they all promise me whatever my heart desires. So, I always ask for the moon, because I know that it is an impossible request and so, unable to fulfil my wishes, they never return. Until now.”
I felt as if the bottom had dropped out of my world. I had lost my home, The Rangoon, my shipmates, including my best friend the cook, I had nearly drowned, drifted for days on a tiny plank, risked my life boarding a ghost ship then been assailed by three common street thugs just to bring her this….this trinket. I slipped it off my paw and left it on the windowsill. I saw no reason to keep it and I hoped that, somehow, it would bring her happiness. As I jumped down to begin my journey back to the town, I saw her place both her paws against the window pane. Her eyes were glassy with tears and she silently mouthed “I’m sorry” to me before blowing me a kiss and disappearing back into the bright room and the lap of her small she-human. As I walked away from the house, the earthly embodiment of the Moon shot out one last beam of pure, milky light before a twist in the path hid it from my view forever.
Demoralised, I decided that it was time to finally come home. The ocean-going life had lost its allure and I wanted nothing more than a place to settle with regular meals and a warm bed. So, I stowed away aboard a tramp steamer heading for Florida and, from there, I was able to work my passage hunting vermin aboard a packet ship bound for Southampton. I was offered a permanent position and, for a while, I was tempted, but instead I found a rusting old tub of a coastal freighter to take me east and my last leg was aboard a sailing barge hauling timber, which brought me up river to this inland port. The rest, as they say, is history.”
“So,” said Rupert, excitedly, “You lost your eye and ear in a street brawl in Havana?”
“No,” said George. “It was the other eye. But my ear certainly retained the shape of my adversary’s teeth.” He grinned with a certain amount of pride.
“So how did you lose the eye?”
“Infection.” said George. “Vet took it out. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to…erm…make myself comfortable.”
Rupert was a little disappointed about the eye, but he was thrilled by George’s tale and vowed to treat the old boy with the greatest respect from then on.
Plump Henrietta bustled into view once again. “Enjoy that?” she asked. Rupert nodded, his mind racing with images of ocean storms, tropic moons and beautiful femme fatales. “One more before dinner, then” she said, and dabbed with her paw at the sleeping face of a large, lugubrious tom, half white and half red, with weathered features and placid, yellow eyes. He woke up, a little reluctantly, and sat up, yawning. “Rupert, meet Norris”. Norris nodded at Rupert and began to settle back down again, when Henrietta said “He wants a story.”
“Which story?” asked Norris, in a dry, rasping voice that suggested a life spent in closed, smoky rooms doing unhealthy and illicit things.
“Yours, of course.” sighed Henrietta, and bustled off to do something probably very important.
Norris cleared his throat, which provoked a prolonged coughing fit, but finally he was ready and, in a cracked voice like claws on emery paper, he began.
“I was born on Midsummer’s night, or so my mother told me. She was a tortoiseshell cat of rare beauty who lived an itinerant life in a small, ornate wooden caravan which she shared with a couple who ran a travelling fair. I was one of a litter of four and my brother, my two sisters and I had an enchanted kittenhood. Our early days were spent safe and warm in a little packing case, lined with a wool blanket and tucked snug under one of the tiny bunks. Then, as we grew older and eager to explore, we were allowed outside during the day to run and play amongst the wagons, stalls and canvas tents of the fairground. Alas, we soon became too large and energetic to be housed altogether in that tiny van so, regretfully, we took our leave of our mother and the fairground boss and his wife. But we didn’t go far.
My sister Cissie had, since she was a tiny kitten, held a fascination for Gwendoline, the Bearded Lady [See the Amazing Bearded Woman! Raised by wolves in the wilderness of The North, she hunted with the pack – she howled at the moon – until she was trapped and tamed! See this amazing hybrid of human and lupine – but don’t get too close! You enter at your own risk! Entrance one penny]. Gwendoline was a large and warm-hearted woman with an ample lap and a well-stocked larder and there was never any doubt that Cissie would be safe, loved and well fed in her caravan. Cissie later confided to me that Gwendoline’s beard was actually false and that she stuck it to her face every morning with gum. In fact this seemed to be common knowledge amongst the fairground folk, although a rumour persisted that it was, in fact, made from the facial hair of a hirsuit former lover by whom Gwen had been jilted, and who had met an unspecified sticky end amongst her bright and cheery knick-knacks, but Cissie dismissed this as untrue. The beard, she declared, was made of ordinary horsehair and it doubled as a cosy bed on a chilly night.
My other sister, Hetty, was a shy little thing, although pretty as a picture. One day, when we were playing outdoors, she was frightened by a small terrier who barked at her and she fled in panic. For a long time, nobody could find her, but she was eventually located, mewing pathetically, inside the workings of the huge steam engine that was used to power the merry-go-rounds. Unable to find her own way out, she was eventually extricated by the long, sinuous arm of Nosmo the India Rubber Man [The Human Reef Knot! Is he a man? Is he a snake? Roll up, roll up and watch Nosmo roll up! Disclaimer: Do not try this at home. The Management cannot be held responsible for personal injury], who held her up in triumph to the applause of the relieved fairground folk, her fur all matted and black with grease. He took her home and bathed the dirt off her until she was once again as beautiful as a butterfly’s wing and she purred for him and snuggled in the crook of his arm and so her future, too, was assured.
My brother Sid, it’s fair to say, was not the sharpest tool in the box and inclined to laziness. If he felt tired, he would simply curl up wherever he happened to be and, one afternoon, the place he happened to be was in the red and gold canvas tent of The Mysterious Suraya [Eastern Mystic and Clairvoyant – Cross my palm with silver! Fortunes told, tuppence; The Dead contacted, sixpence; No reporters, clergy or scientists] who was better known to her friends and family as Sarah. Her clients seemed to be enchanted by the sight of a fat ginger kitten laying sound asleep with his legs in the air amongst the Tarot cards and, for the first time ever, a queue formed outside her tent and the silver coins clinked into her brass collecting pot. So, from that day on, Sid snoozed peacefully on her lap without a care in the world while The Mysterious Suraya waved her hands over her crystal ball and noisily channelled her Indian spirit guide.
And me? My future, as it turned out, lay in the noise, the heat and the sweat of the boxing booth.
THE MIGHTY MAXIMILLIAN: newly returned to these shores from the farthest corners of the Empire, his secret mission – to instruct the bodyguards of the Sultan of Ranjipoor in the art of hand-to-hand combat – completed, he is NOW READY to take on all comers. SEE the greatest pugilist in the Universe! Unbeaten in over 1,000 bouts! Try your hand if you dare! Generous cash prizes for any man who can best him! (Unsuitable for ladies or those of a delicate constitution)
In fact, Max was five feet five in his pumps and had never left these shores, except in his dreams. He was a showman to his very core. He had never known any other life, as his father had run the boxing booth before him, as had his father’s father. His mother had been the assistant to “The Great Stupendo”, conjuror and illusionist, and spent much of her working life vanishing from cabinets-of-mystery or being sawn in half whilst wearing little more than a scrap of sequined gauze and an ostrich feather. Max was born in his parents’ covered wagon, on the road between the towns of Shepton Mallet and Glastonbury, so he called the county of Somerset his home, even though we only visited the place a couple of times a year.
The kindest way to describe Max was “wiry”. He was a small man and almost comically thin, but his frail appearance disguised a physique which was one hundred per cent sinew and muscle. He was unusual amongst the fairground folk in that his bill matter was, in one small part, accurate. He genuinely was unbeaten in over 1,000 bouts. It’s true that his opponents varied wildly in size, shape and ability, and many were fuelled by the Dutch courage being purveyed from wooden barrels at the other end of the fairground, but some were genuinely formidable. Under the Marquis of Queensbury Rules, Max wouldn’t stand a chance against some of the burly farm hands and factory workers who queued up to try their hand at winning the day’s purse. But, the good Marquis’s rule book was torn to tiny shreds, stamped upon and buried in an unmarked grave in The Mighty Maximillian’s booth.
Max’s size, or lack of it, was the secret of his success. That, and his speed, athleticism and dancing skills. Oh yes! Outside of his nightly appearances in the booth, Max was an enthusiastic member of several Morris dancing troupes around the country and he could leap, wave his white handkerchiefs and brandish his ash stave with the best of them. He declared that it was the best fitness regime a fighter could follow, making no mention of the fact that Morris Men tended to be rewarded for their performance with free bread and cheese and a mug or two of the local ale. When he wasn’t dancing “Princes Royal” or “Maid-of-the-Mill”, he would practice his punching with the aid of a cloth-covered board held steady for him by Edgar “The Man-Mountain” Dixon, the fair’s strongman [See him bend iron girders! Watch him snap tree trunks in two!]. Often, he would employ a couple of the younger, fitter barkers to pretend to be challengers and jump around waving their fists in an effort to hit him, while Max practiced his best skill, which was evasion. He presented a small, fast target and he had a range of cheeky moves to get himself out of trouble, including the legendary “Maximillian Flip” which was a great crowd pleaser, but guaranteed to work his challengers up into a lather of frustration. Sooner or later, every opponent would try to floor him with an upper cut, a swift punch to the underside of his chin which, if it hit its mark, would surely knock him out cold. When he saw the punch coming – and he always saw it coming – he would leap into the air, twisting himself into an airborne back somersault, which would have the dual effect of throwing his opponent completely off guard and landing him several feet outside the danger zone.
It was my habit to attend every one of Max’s bouts as well as his training sessions – although I usually drew the line at the Morris Dancing. He considered me his lucky charm and would be reluctant to enter the booth unless he knew I was close by. When I wasn’t attending Max’s fights, I ran a little boxing booth of my own behind the tent, challenging the local tom cats to take me on. Nothing was at stake except our honour, but honour, as you know, is paramount to a tom cat in his prime. I had learned well from Max and my expertise at ducking, diving and dodging made me a legend amongst my kind – and beyond. I also took on – and bested – several dogs, a couple of foxes, a badger and – on one memorable occasion – a postman. This unwise gentleman had aimed a kick at me while I was sunning myself beside the path and he consequently spent several hours up a tree, until the fire brigade were summoned to bring him down with a long ladder. I felt a little guilty about that – wasting the time of the Fire Brigade, I mean. However, the legend that was Norris the prize fighter was cemented, and I was famed throughout the land.
And so, that was our life. For most of the year, we toured from village to village, town to town, setting up, packing up, travelling on. There were spring fairs, Mayday fairs, Midsummer fairs and Mop fairs in the autumn to celebrate the gathering-in of the harvest. But, come winter, the caravans were parked up near to a big town or city, the horses, donkeys and goats tucked up in rented barns and stables and the itinerant life ceased for a few months, although we stayed together. In the day, most of the performers, barkers and labourers went into the city to find whatever casual work they could pick up, as many had saleable skills. As for Max, he simply carried on as before, only now he challenged all comers in the back rooms of pubs at night or in market squares during the day. These winter fights were a whole lot more serious than the jolly affairs under the summer sun, and the atmosphere seemed more dangerous. Max did not encourage me to come with him, but I felt my place was by his side as his lucky charm, so every day I perched on his boney shoulder as we made our way through the narrow streets and alleys to whichever pub, lumber yard or brothel was hosting the fight.
So, one December night, when we were over-wintering in the East End of London, Max and I dodged our way past beggars, drunkards and street women as we threaded through the grimy, run-down streets of Wapping to our destination, a yard behind a brewery next to the docks where illegal bare-knuckle fights were frequently held. The punters would bet on the outcome, and the winners would take away a small share of the profits. When we arrived, the yard was full of people, mostly men, shouting, swearing and braying with course laughter. The air, though cold, was heavy with the smell of alcohol and tobacco, mixed with the smoke from several braziers which almost completely failed to give off any heat or light and, in the centre, a crude ring was marked out with lengths of rope slung between posts.
Max was one of three fighters due to compete that night. I jumped off his shoulder and tried to hide myself away from the crowd but, as a ginger and white cat, I didn’t exactly blend into the shadows. As I watched Max enter the ring and saw his opponent – twice his size and wearing studded wrist bands and two heavy leather bandoliers criss-crossed across his chest, I had a bad feeling about the outcome. These fights were no-holds-barred affairs and the crowd were baying for blood and I thought I could see several of the spectators carrying knives. I tried to push my way through the crowd to get closer to the ring but I heard a voice above the others yell “Oi! There’s a bleedin’ cat in ‘ere!”. I turned tail and ran, but many of the younger men decided it would be good sport to try to catch me and I was soon cornered behind a stack of barrels. Hands reached in and I was grabbed and lifted out. I writhed and lashed out with my claws and teeth but a coat was thrown over me so I could no longer see my target. I was carried some way before being set down on the ground and the coat was pulled off me. I found myself inside some sort of warehouse away from the boxing yard, standing in a sort of wooden pen, surrounded by four plank walls. Outside the pen stood many men, most of them young, all of them shouting and laughing and pointing at me. Inside the pen….four of the largest and heaviest dogs I had ever seen. Each dog was tethered to one of the corner posts of the pen, straining against their bonds, their dripping jaws gaping open, their lips curled back revealing teeth like sabres. The poor beasts were probably starving and I’m sure my only function was to get their bloodlust up so they could later be set against each other, but nonetheless, the crowd was determined to enjoy the spectacle of me being torn limb from limb. The dogs were untethered and I closed my eyes as they moved towards me, their stink and the heat from their breath enveloping me. I sent up a prayer to the Moon, asking her to light my star in the sky and to watch over Max, as I believed my time had surely come but, instead, a thought entered my mind, like a tiny river of silver amidst the black of my despair. All my years with Max – watching him train, watching him dance, watching him fight, was distilled into this one perfect thought, and I realised there was a way out. With the dogs only inches away, I took a deep breath, tensed every muscle in my body to nearly breaking point and, with every single ounce of my strength, I sprang straight upwards and turned in mid-air, executing a “Maximillian Flip” worthy of the man himself.
My leap landed me just outside the wooden fence and ran like I had never run before out of the warehouse. My ordeal was not yet over, though, as the dogs had broken free of the pen and were now in pursuit, desperate for the meal which they had been promised, but were now being denied. I ran away from the brewery and through the same streets and alleyways by which I had come, threading through the legs of the same beggars and street vendors, dodging under carts and over packing cases, the dogs never far behind. Unable to run much further, I came at last to a railway shunting yard close to the docks, where I spotted a small hole in the side of a wooden wagon which was large enough for me but too small for the dogs to follow, and I squeezed inside. The dogs pushed their noses through the hole and barked and whined for their lost meal and I could hear their claws scratching and scrabbling against the wooden walls for some time, until their owners finally caught up with them and pulled them away on their leashes. Exhausted, bruised and shaking I lay down on a pile of sacks in the corner of the wagon to regain my breath and – well, I didn’t mean to, but I fell fast asleep. When I awoke, the wagon was shaking and bouncing and the air was filled with unfamiliar clanking sounds and I realised that I was in motion, and moving away from my home, my family and my beloved Max. The wagon finally rolled to a halt several hours later and I emerged through the hole into the cold dawn, in a town completely unfamiliar to me. I wandered for several days, scavenging scraps wherever I could and trying to work out how I could get back to London and to Max – assuming he had survived the fight against the brute in the bandoliers, but I never could. I had been borne too far away and there was no scent trail to guide me back. Then one night, cold and hungry, I smelt food in the distance and, following the scent, I wandered into the trap that eventually brought me here.”
“How awful” said Rupert. “To lose everyone you loved like that. You must wonder about them all the time.”
“I miss them all, of course, especially Max, but I don’t have to wonder about them. Word gets around, you know, and a drifter passed through here a few years back who had heard that Max no longer had the heart for the boxing ring after he was separated from his lucky charm, and had given up the fairground life to see the world. He joined a merchantman heading for The Orient and swapped the Morris dance for the Sailor’s Hornpipe. I’m sure, wherever he is, he is doing fine and I like to believe he thinks of me from time to time. I also heard that the fairground disbanded after the boss and his wife decided to retire to a nice little cottage in Dorset with my mother, and that Gwendoline and the Mysterious Suraya took a little haberdashery shop together, so Cissie and Sid are sitting pretty amongst the yarns and laces. Sadly, Nosmo the India Rubber Man perished, and poor Hetty was bereft for a while, but was offered a home by two sisters who run the teashop next door to Cissie and Sid’s haberdashery, and I hear their meat paste sandwiches are second to none. And me? I get two good meals a day, all the biscuits I can eat, a choice of cosy beds, the attention of kind humans and – well, look around you. This is the best surrogate family a cat can wish for. I snooze away the days and remember the old times but, no, I don’t miss it so much any more. This is my home now and I am content.”
Norris yawned and put his head down on his paws and was soon snoring peacefully. While Norris had been speaking Rupert had noticed a slim tortoiseshell and white cat sitting close by, listening to the stories which she had probably heard a dozen times before. She had clearly seen better days and was a little ragged around the edges, but it was obvious that she had once been a beauty. She smiled coyly at him and introduced herself as Bonnie. Even though he had not spoken to her, she took the introduction as her cue to begin her own story.
“Me? I was a great and famous singer. My fans, all male, would journey from far and wide to attend one of my performances. And the humans too. They would open their doors and lean out of their windows and shout their praises. Often, they would throw gifts – whatever they could lay their hands on. Many of them didn’t have much, so I was flattered when they threw bottles or tin cans or boots, for I knew these things were valuable to them. Sometimes, they would throw flowers – or vegetables anyway – which, in the human world, is the ultimate compliment. I was especially flattered when they would throw their flowers still with the pots attached, so then I would give them the encore they so obviously desired and they would shout their praises all the more.
Ah…I can remember all of my greatest performances…on the Lightning Oak in the Seven-Acre Field, the red wall behind the Town Hall, the stone memorial in the Market Square under a Hunter’s Moon…
All my feline fans showed their appreciation in their own special way too and thus I created a whole generation of tiny songsmiths, destined to spread my music to the farthest reaches of this land. And then there was my beloved boy, Pan. He was born without sight and so stayed close to me long after all my other kittens had left to be independent. He was waiting for me to come home when I was trapped and brought here. I never had a chance to tell him…perhaps someone has been kind to him…or maybe he waits still…”
After a long silence, Bonnie closed her eyes and, swaying gently from side to side, she began to sing…
“When the autumn gales are howling
When the winter tempests moan
Leave a candle in your window
To light my journey home
When the midnight sky is starless
And the moon is hid from view
Leave a candle in your window
I will find my way to you
Put some food under the table
Lay my blanket by the hearth
Leave a candle in your window
So its glow may light my path
As, along the snowy highway
On silent feet I tread,
Leave a candle in your window
To show the road ahead
Like a point of purest starshine
Like a diamond in the night
Leave a candle in your window
I will see its blessed light
Though the lonely road seems hopeless
Though the night is full of fear
Leave a candle in your window
And I’ll know when I am near
I can see you in your doorway
I can hear your welcome song
And the candle in your window
Brings me home where I belong
So, when autumn gales are howling
And the winter trees are bare
Leave a candle in your window
To give light to those out there.”
When the verses ran out, she continued to hum the tune and sway gently, eyes still closed, lost in her own little world and Rupert suddenly felt his eyes sting, while his vision went a little misty.
A human voice shook Bonnie from her reverie and caused Rupert to flatten his ears and crouch down, prepared to flee if necessary. But, the voice was gentle and friendly.
“You’re in good voice today, Bonbon. Who are you singing to?”
The clatter of plates prompted a mass movement of cats from all corners of the enclosure. Rupert hung back, still unsure, until Henrietta’s cheerful face appeared, a little too close to his own.
“Dinner!” She said. “Come on, or someone else will eat it. Then you can tell us your story.”
Rupert looked alarmed. “I don’t really have one….”
“But you survived alone out there. You must’ve been a cunning hunter.” said Henrietta.
“No…I was afraid and lonely the whole time and I scavenged whatever the squirrels rejected from the bins. It doesn’t make a good story, not like George’s or Norris’s”.
Henrietta winked at him, grinning. “It’s not the story that’s important. It’s the way you tell it. Just apply a little imagination…now, eat!”
Rupert sniffed at the contents of the bowl in front of him, and a glorious waft of chicken hit his nose, then his palate, then the rest of his senses until nothing else was important. He lapped up the food, which was the best he had ever tasted in his life. After he had licked the bowl completely clean, he spotted a tempting patch of evening sunlight in the corner of the enclosure and stretched contentedly before flopping down on his side. He closed his eyes to doze, but sleep didn’t come instantly. Instead, his imagination began to work and pictures formed in his head.
In place of the broken-down buildings and rusting machinery of his former home, he saw a deep green forest, with mossy banks and a rushing stream and a startled deer springing away through the trees. He was slinking through the bracken, belly low, senses alert. Ahead of him, a large buck rabbit grazed on a patch of bright grass, its back turned towards him….
And, later that evening, when his new family gathered around, tucked in their paws and focused their eyes on him expectantly, he cleared his throat and began.
“I was once a mighty hunter…the scourge of the forest….”
* * *
POSTSCRIPT: You probably want to know what happened to Bonnie’s blind son. Well, the trappers already knew about him and were hoping to trap him at the same time as his mother, but in fact they caught him a couple of days later. After he was cleaned up, vaccinated, chipped and neutered, they decided he would not thrive in the environment of the feral run, so one of the veterinary nurses took him home, where he lives happily to this day.
THE ADVENTURES OF THE LITTLE GREY CAT
Hope you’ll indulge me a little. This story is not cam-related but more personal than that. In early March, I lost my old cat, Edward, who I took in after my mother died. Shortly after, I adopted an eleven year old girl from the shelter where I volunteer. I felt I wanted to give Eddie a proper send off and at the same time to welcome Sybil, a Little Grey Cat.
Once upon a time, there was a little grey cat. She was not, by any conventional measure, a beautiful cat. Her fur was not sleek, nor was it shiny. In fact, it was kind of bristly and somewhat thin, exposing in places the chalky white skin underneath. Her paw pads were grey, but her nose leather was brick red and she had the blackest of black lips, which framed the pink tongue which she often forgot to put away, giving her a slightly comical air. And she was not grey like polished slate, nor grey like burnished steel. No, she was grey like an autumn rain cloud, or a patch of damp fog in the late afternoon of a winter’s day. In fact, it was only her tabby stripes which were grey at all. Her underparts, by contrast, were luxuriantly furred and the colour of a ripe peach, and she kept them clean and spruce with frequent and thorough washes. To the world, though, she was a Little Grey Cat.
Her life thus far had been, for the most part, fairly uneventful – boring even. After she left her mother and siblings, she had lived for ten years with a gentleman who she loved dearly and who fed her well and provided comfy spots in which to sleep. However, he lived in a small apartment, there were few toys and the view from the window was little more than the side wall of the building next door and only the smallest patch of sky. This, for a cat of her status, was a constant source of frustration. Even on the clearest night, she could only see a small handful of stars and only the light reflected against the clouds told her when there was a full moon. On those nights, she sat on the back of the armchair, which was as close as she could get to the window, and sang her song to the Moon and she murred her lowest murr in the hope of getting a response from some other cat – but none came. Over the years, she learned to suppress her disappointment at being unable to fulfil her destiny, according to her status, and she contented herself with being a good companion to her elderly hoomin.
Then, one day, her hoomin disappeared and she found herself bundled into a dark box and bumped and rattled around for what seemed like the longest time, then disgorged into an unfamiliar location, which smelt of unknown cats, hygiene and unhappiness. For so long, she had lived a solitary life with just a single hoomin for company, and no other cats to talk to – even at the full moon – and now she found herself cheek-by-jowl with two strange cats, competing for the best bed, competing for the bowls of crunchies, competing for the attention of the hoomins who visited. She realised that she did not like it. Her tail was constantly puffed up, she found herself growling involuntarily, and she discovered that she had a strong territorial streak of which she had been previously unaware. She and her room-mates were forced to come up with a compromise, which is not a thing that comes naturally to cats. The Little Grey Cat declared that she would have seniority (which was only fitting, considering her status), which gave her dominion over the plastic garden chair in the outdoor area, plus the basket nearest the heater in the indoor bedroom. The others could fight over the best of the rest. They also reached an accord – eventually – regarding the distribution of crunchies. However, it was every cat for themselves when it came to attracting the attention of the visiting hoomins. Now this was something with which the Little Grey Cat had no trouble. She had learned many years ago that the best way to get noticed by hoomins was to shout at them. She had a wide vocabulary and she had noticed that, if you repeated yourself often enough (hoomins being somewhat slow on the uptake) they would eventually understand what you meant. It was hard work, but her hoomin had at last been able to distinguish “food, please” from “treats, please” and “pet me, now!”.
Names, however, were a different matter. Her mother had named her Fahi (pronounced “Prrrrrrtttttmroww”), which meant “Little Shadow”. Her hoomin had named her Sheba, which meant nothing at all and, no matter how many times she had shouted her correct name at him, her hoomin had never, ever used it, so she had given up. Obviously, hoomins were only capable of a rudimentary grasp of language, but she forgave them on account of the fact that they were pretty handy with a can opener.
In the tiny chalet, the days stretched to weeks, the weeks to months. During the day, there was much hustle and bustle, with people bringing food, cleaning floors and fluffing blankets. On some days, other hoomins came in and administered strokes and cuddles and ear scritches, which was a most pleasant interlude, but it didn’t last for long. Then there were the nights, after all the people had left. The Little Grey Cat would sit in her plastic chair and listen to the lamentations of her neighbours, most of whom were confused and lonely, missing their old homes and their old people. She tried hard not to let melancholy overwhelm her, as she realised that those cats who gave up, who curled up in their bedrooms and refused to greet their visitors, were the cats who never left. And plenty of cats did leave. They would pass by her door in their carriers, nervous and apprehensive, off to new lives. She quietly wished them well. But, more than that, she wished that she could be one of them. And she sang to the Moon whenever She was full to ask if that might be possible.
And, after ten long months, the Lady Moon finally granted her wish. The Little Grey Cat found herself back in a carrier being bumped and rattled around, this time not for very long – although she sang the Song of Her People all the way in protest – before she was disgorged into another new location. This one was very different. It didn’t smell of other cats (well, it did slightly), it didn’t smell of unhappiness and it certainly didn’t smell of hygiene. There was a big comfy hoomin bed and big comfy armchairs and a scratcher and a litter box and food and crunchies and…..oh, joy! A huge window, with a wide sill for sitting, and a view of trees and grass and birdies and, best of all, a large expanse of sky. Her new hoomin was one already familiar to her, being one of those who had occasionally come in to administer snuggles. The Little Grey Cat declared herself satisfied with the accommodations, and settled in for the duration.
A few weeks passed, and life for the Little Grey Cat was proving decidedly above average. The meals came regularly, the litter box was kept fresh and clean, there were occasional treats and even a roast chicken dinner from time to time. She and her hoomin spent quality time together, snuggled on the sofa or sleeping on the big bed, and there was even the completely new experience of cat TV, featuring strange cats who didn’t steal her bed or her crunchies, and comical kittens who rolled and tumbled for her amusement, all behind the safety of a small, shiny screen. She had taken to this novelty instantly. But, the thing she liked the most was the big window with the broad sill, where she could sit at night, alone with her thoughts, and count the stars in all their myriad colours and configurations. One night, she even spotted Ham the Hunter, streaking across the sky from west to east, his glittering tail behind him, in pursuit of some unseen celestial prey. From time to time, she was aware of soft sounds in the house – the odd creak, the rustle of fabric, a sound like the padding of soft paws across carpet – all of them just on the very edge of hearing. She dismissed these as the workings of her imagination. But, sometimes, the sounds were accompanied by the smallest breath of wind, as if someone or something had passed close by her face. Despite herself, she would feel her whiskers stiffening and the sparse bristles on the back of her neck beginning to stand on end.
One night in late March, she heard the sound of stealthy paws accompanied by the familiar movement of air near her face, but this time she was certain something had touched her – a tail, maybe, or a whisker…. She peered into the gloom and was certain she could make out a dark shape descending the stairs. Gathering her courage, she followed it as it passed through the carpeted dining room (pad, pad, pad), into the tiled kitchen (click, click, click) and out through the cat door into the back garden. This was odd, because she knew the cat door was locked. She tried to push it with a paw and it did not budge. Mystified, she sat down, trying to see through the transparent plastic door into the dark garden, but she could see nothing. Taking a deep breath, and willing her tail to return to its normal size, she turned to go back up the stairs and stopped dead…. Laying across the threshold between the kitchen and dining room, effectively blocking her way, was an enormous tabby cat. Instinctively, she stood up on her tip-toes, arching her back, her fur stuck out in all directions. She let out a low growl. The tabby cat continued to lay there, regarding her passively with calm, olive eyes.
“What the…. who the….where the….?” The Little Grey Cat was not at her most articulate at this time.
“Hello,” said the tabby. “Don’t mind me.”
“But…but…you’re in my house!” she squeaked, uncertain whether to be frightened or outraged.
“It’s my house, too.” said the tabby. “Or, it was….”
She peered closely at the big cat. Was it her eyesight, or did he look a little fuzzy around the edges? Was his form really wavering slightly, or had she eaten something which disagreed with her?
“I don’t understand.” she said.
“Oh. Well, I’m Edward. I lived here before you. Still do, in a way. I thought I might as well wait here.”
“Wait for what? Shouldn’t you have crossed The Bridge by now?” The Little Grey Cat was aware that there had been a previous occupant in the house. She was also aware of the cardboard box on the kitchen counter which contained his last earthly remains.
“Yes, I suppose so. But I’m not ready yet. Something has to happen first.”
“What?,” she asked.
“Don’t know,” replied the tabby, “but I’ll know when it happens. Until then, I hope you won’t mind if I stick around.”
“Er…no. I suppose not. Perhaps you can answer some questions for me.”
But answer came there none, which was unsurprising considering Edward had completely disappeared.
He did not return the next night, even though she waited up for him, nor the night after that. She began to wonder if his appearance had been nothing more than a protracted and vivid dream after all. On the third day, she was temporarily distracted by an interesting development. As she sat on the kitchen floor giving her paws their post-breakfast wash, she realised that the back door was open. She approached cautiously, and peered outside. The sun was out, although there was a stiff breeze which ruffled her fur and whiskers in an unfamiliar way. It had been so long since she had felt grass under her paws and the wind in her fur, that she felt a little apprehensive. However, her hoomin was not far away, pegging out damp washing on a long line, so she gathered up her courage and stepped out.
Oh! The assault on her senses! Her ears were filled with the roar of the wind and the cheeping and squawking of birds, the drone of human voices and the distant “whoosh, whoosh” of traffic across the fields. And the smells! She immediately set off, anxious to take it all in and create a mental map of her new territory. She sniffed at everything. She could tell where the birds had been, and the mice; there were unfamiliar cats in the vicinity, too – she made a note to find out more. There was the scent of fresh grass and the herby odour of young nettles and tree bark and the distant tang of the ocean, mixed up with the oily fumes drifting in from the road. There were bushes, shrubs and small plants all densely packed together, forming dark, cat-sized highways to a world of wonder. There were wooden fences on which she could perch and scan the horizon for….oh, for anything. Then, she looked up. The blue sky above disappeared into infinity in all directions, uninterrupted by walls or buildings or tall trees. Next full moon, she thought….maybe.
Excited by her outdoor adventures, she ate a hearty meal that night and soon fell asleep on the chair in the dining room, until she was jolted suddenly awake by something touching her nose. As her eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, she could make out the shape of the big tabby cat standing in front of her, his front paws resting on the seat of her chair.
“You’ve been sprung, then…” he said.
“Given your freedom,” he translated. “The cat door is unlocked – I’ve tried it. Come outside with me.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever been outside after dark before.” said the Little Grey Cat.
“It’s magical,” said Edward, heading across the kitchen floor.
She followed, feeling a little nervous. It was true – in all her years, she had never once set foot outside after dark, even though she knew that, in her bones, she was a creature of the night. She wasn’t confident that her eyesight would be up to it, nor that her whiskers would be sensitive enough, nor her sense of smell discerning enough. Still, she had an overwhelming need to please the old, spectral cat – she didn’t know why – so she followed.
Edward was right. The night garden was a world of wonder. As her eyes adjusted, she realised she could see every detail as different shades of grey and silver – she could even see a hundred different shades of black. The scents she had explored earlier that day were tonight magnified a hundred times, and she discovered that her whiskers could tell apart the nettles from the daffodils, the wood of the fence from the bark of the trees. Her whole body felt as if it was charged with electricity. She had never seen or sniffed or felt anything so exciting in her whole life. She could see Edward waiting for her at the end of the flower bed, so she pushed her way through, feeling every grain of earth and every dried leaf and pebble through her paw pads, and gaining in confidence with every step.
She emerged from the flower bed to find herself at the very end of the garden. In front of her was a battered wire fence, behind that, a deep ditch bordering a large field, which seemed to stretch away to infinity. She was startled by unfamiliar animal shapes moving in the distance with strange, grass like tails which flicked incessantly – “Horses,” explained Edward. Then she flinched as something whooshed over her head, screeching eerily – “An owl,” explained Edward. So much to learn, she thought, recovering her composure.
“Look,” Edward turned his face to the sky, and the Little Grey Cat followed his gaze. Laid out above them was a tapestry of dark blue velvet, woven through with silver and golden threads and studded with a million tiny, sparkling jewels. The Little Grey Cat sighed deeply with satisfaction. All this – on her own doorstep.
For many nights after this, Edward and The Little Grey Cat met at the bottom of the garden. They would look up at the sky and she would share her knowledge of the constellations and history and mythology although, it must be said, he seemed to be quite well versed in these subjects already, which was unusual for a he-cat. Someone must have taught him. In return, Edward told her about the other animals with whom she would have to share her garden, and where to find the best napping spots, and he told long rambling stories about his brother and his mother and other cats who he had known in the past. Sometimes, her eyelids would start to droop during these, then she would have to shake her head vigorously to wake herself up again. She didn’t want to insult the old boy, although he probably wouldn’t have noticed.
Then, one night towards the end of April, they met as usual at the end of the garden. Instead of launching into a lengthy anecdote or repeating a joke he had once heard from that siamese who used to live along the road, Edward indicated to her a stout fence post at the very corner of the garden. She had seen it before, of course, but it had never seemed very remarkable. It was leaning slightly, and there were nails protruding from the wood where the wire fencing had become detached at the top. At its foot, there was a small pile of stone slabs which appeared to form steps.
“This was Lia’s place.” said Edward.
“Lia. She crossed the bridge about a year ago. Nobody knew how old she was, least of all Lia herself. She was tiny and bent and wizened and had hardly any fur left, but she was the queen in these parts. Even though her voice was only a dry rasp, like the sound of a wheel rolling over straw, she came here on every full moon – sometimes more often – and she led The Circle from this fence post. She called, the others listened.”
“I thought there was nobody out there,” said the Little Grey Cat. “I’ve called before, but I’ve never had a response.”
“They are waiting for a new queen to lead them. Isn’t that why you’ve come? It is your destiny, after all…as befits your status.”
She gulped, and her vision went all misty for a second. Her mother before her, her mother’s mother before that….
“That’s your place now,” said Edward, nodding towards the fence post, “and there’s something I’d like you to do.”
“This is my last night in this place – the thing that I was waiting for is about to happen. This is not my true home – not the home of my heart. I lived most of my life in another place with my brother and some different hoomins. My brother crossed the bridge a few years ago, then the last of my hoomins followed him. The hoomin’s kitten took me in and we came here because my old home was not hers to keep. Oh, don’t get me wrong – life has been very pleasant here and the hoomin kitten is kind and generous, but I never stopped missing my old house and my old family and my old friends. I missed my sleeping bush and the pond with the big fishes and the little deer who used to visit me and my neighbour cats, Katie and Rufus…but, tomorrow, I am finally going home.”
“I’ll miss you,” she said, and meant it.
“Then remember me,” he said, “for tomorrow night, I’ll cross the Bridge and my brother William will be waiting to greet me and so will Lia, I hope. But, I have nobody left here to sing to The Moon and light my star.”
“But…” She was unable to find any words.
” If you lead, they will follow….don’t forget to tell them your name.”
“It’s Fahi, which means….”
“No. I mean the name the hoomin gave you. The name you go by now.”
“Sybil. My old hoomin called me Sheba, but this one has….”.
“Then tell them you are Sybil. They’ve been waiting for you.”
The following morning, the hoomin kissed Sybil on the top of her head and left the house. Under her arm, she carried the cardboard box containing the last earthly remains of Edward.
So, that night, Sybil slipped through the cat door and pushed her way through the flower bed to the clearing near the fence, and hopped up onto the fence post. For a while she sat, still and quiet, feeling the breeze ruffle her fur, hearing the call of the owl in the distance, the soft crunch, crunch of the horses cropping grass and the distant whoosh of the traffic over the fields, and then she raised her eyes to the sky. Ham the Hunter streaked over once again, this time pursuing his elusive quarry away to the north. She fixed her eyes on the moon as She emerged from behind a wisp of cloud and bathed the whole universe in liquid silver. Clearing her throat, Sybil began to sing, and it was a song she had known her whole life – a song known to every cat in every land under the Moon. And, one by one, other voices began to join in, some far away, some close at hand. The song was soft at first, like the hum of wires on the wind, then gradually more and more voices took it up until the sound filled the whole of the land and sky. Across the fields, across the night, they all lifted up their voices in praise of Edward – a gentle and noble cat.
Much later, Sybil sat indoors on the windowsill, washing her face and arranging her whiskers. What a night! She felt warm and contented, her destiny fulfilled at last, as befitted a cat of her status. Never mind that her fur was sparse and bristly, nor that her tail was thin and undistinguished, nor that she was the colour of damp fog. No – she was the queen around these parts and life was good. Glancing up one more time to where a new star danced, like a bright copper coin, next to its brother, she turned away from the window and jumped onto the bed where the hoomin lay asleep and curled up at the bottom corner.
Then she thought the better of it, and stretched herself out right across the middle.
The Little Grey Cat slept.
The boy sat at the small table in the kitchen, ruminatively eating his cornflakes whilst reading the list of ingredients on the back of the packet. Making a mental note to Google “thiamine” and “niacin”, to find out what they heck they actually were and whether their presence in his breakfast cereal was beneficial to his health and well being, he put down his spoon and reached for his tea mug. He liked to survey his domain over the rim of his red mug – the small, neat kitchen, his mother making his lunchtime sandwich and, in the corner of the room, two young cats tucking into their own breakfasts.
At least, one of them was tucking in. The fluffy tabby ate with gusto, her eyes closed in pleasure, a soft purr trying to make itself heard over the sound of her smacking lips. Her elegant companion looked sideways at her, one eyebrow raised, then continued with his mission to fastidiously remove every last scrap of sauce from the bowl without disturbing any of the meaty chunks.
“Honestly, Peter,” said Honey, between mouthfuls, “I don’t know how you became such a picky eater. The chunks are the best bit – the bit that gives you energy!”
“I’ll come back to them later.” said Peter. “I subscribe to the theory that grazing is a healthier dietary choice than just scarfing it down.”
“They’ll go all dry.” said Honey, her tongue making a rasping noise as she licked clean the bottom of her plate.
“I like them like that,” he lied.
The boy, having finished his breakfast, pushed back his chair and stood up. He took his school bag and coat off the peg on the wall, collected his packed lunch from the counter and headed for the front door. In accordance with what had become their daily routine, Honey sat on the windowsill washing the detritus of her meal off her paws and face, while Peter trotted at the boy’s heels to the front door, where the pair exchanged nose kisses before he left the house to run to the bus stop. A few minutes later, the ritual was repeated, but this time it was Honey who followed the mother to the door and kissed her goodbye as she left to go to work.
Peter and Honey had learned a lot in the months since they’d arrived at their forever home. They had learned that they couldn’t both fit through the cat door at the same time, that the lady next door liked kittens, that the lady at the other next door didn’t, that a sheep cannot be reasoned with, that the meadow behind the house reminded them of somewhere….
They had also learned that some things that are broken cannot be mended. The jar with the mayonnaise, for instance, and the wine glass which Honey knocked onto the kitchen tiles with one swish of her magnificent tail. Also, the green vase, the pile of empty plant pots, next door’s hideous plaster gnome, the blue vase and the big sponge cake – although the creamy bits still tasted good even when licked off the door of the fridge. All of these infractions had been tolerated with good grace by their humans. Except for the picture. Honey hadn’t meant to do it. She was just playing at “the floor is lava” with Peter and the picture – a framed photograph of a good-looking young man dressed in uniform – fell from the mantlepiece onto the hearth and the glass cracked. The mother shouted in anger and jumped up so suddenly that Honey took fright and ran out of the room to hide under the bed. Much later, the mother coaxed her out with a treat and picked her up and held her tight, burying her face into Honey’s fur. Honey could feel a touch of damp on the back of her neck – not for the first time – and knew what she had to do.
For sometimes, the kittens had learned, human hearts could be broken too, and there was a hole in this home which, at times, threatened to suck all of the light and air and joy so far down into it that it could never return. They sincerely believed, however, that it was possible to mend a home and a human heart, one piece at a time. What’s more, they believed that this was their mission, so they set about it with a will.
Whenever the mother was alone in the house, and she would put down her book, or her whisk, or her needle and retreat to her bedroom and curl up on her bed, Honey would make it her job to jump up beside her and to trill in her prettiest voice and roll onto her back and make air biscuits and to purr and to purr until, instead of weeping bitter tears into her pillow, the mother would run her hands over Honey’s fur and lay her head next to the woolly belly and doze off listening to the safe, comforting rumble, and the mother would remember a little what contentment felt like.
And whenever the boy sat alone in his room on a fine day, instead of joining his friends outdoors, Peter would make it his job to push his way in through the door and to pounce at the sunbeams and jump at the dust motes and to stalk imaginary prey and to chase his own tail until, instead of sitting and staring aimlessly into space, the boy would reach for the feather stick and the two of them would leap and spin and run and laugh, and the boy would remember a little what fun felt like.
One piece at a time.
* * * * *
It was early spring when the subject of birthdays came up.
“What do you want this year?” his mother asked.
There were plenty of things he needed, and a few things he wanted, but he knew money was tight and he had to keep his expectations low.
“I don’t really know. I’ll have to think about it.” He really needed, and also wanted, new trainers, but the ones he’d set his heart on were hideously expensive and, let’s be honest, better no trainers at all than the wrong ones. So, he didn’t mention them and asked for time to consider instead.
“Maybe we can go out somewhere this year,” she ventured.
“We don’t have a car. It failed its MOT.”
“Tom has a car….”
She knew even as she said it what his reaction would be. The boy’s face reddened, he jumped to his feet and stomped off to his bedroom, slamming the door.
Peter instinctively followed, sensing that his services would be needed. Honey, likewise, moved to sit beside the mother’s feet, ready to jump into her lap should things escalate. Finding the boy’s door closed, Peter mewed quietly. It opened a crack, and he quickly snaked through the gap before it was slammed shut again.
The boy lay on his back on the bed, with Peter sitting on his chest, paws tucked in, in a tidy loaf position. He kept his steady, cornflower blue gaze on the boy’s face as he ranted, through gritted teeth.
“I don’t want him at my birthday…he’s always here…hanging around mum…crashing about the place…him and that lolloping dog…you don’t like the dog either.”
Peter inclined his head. Actually, the dog was pretty civilised, considering. She’d always been polite to him and Honey, anyway. However, her body language was unpredictable, so both cats tended to keep out of her way.
“…and his stupid red sports car and his stupid green Landrover and his filthy gumboots and his beard and his stupid posh voice…”
He tailed off, temporarily devoid of any more things to hate about “The Man”. The Man had begun to show up about a month previously. Firstly, he had called in with a trailer load of firewood for their wood burning stove, then he had called in with packets of chops and sausages for their freezer and mum had invited him to stay for coffee, then he had called in with some bottles of his home-made elderflower cordial and mum had made him lunch, then after that he had just begun to call in. The boy would sometimes come home from school and there would be The Man, sitting at the kitchen table like he belonged, with that lolloping dog laying on the floor and the kittens nowhere to be seen.
“If he thinks he can replace dad, he’s got another think coming!” The boy spat out the words, teeth still gritted, face still red. “He’s not my dad…what does he even do?” He pushed his balled up fists into his eye sockets, in a vain attempt to stop the tears from flowing.
“My dad was a soldier….” he told Peter, who already knew this. “He was always away, but it didn’t matter ‘cos he always came home, and then it was brilliant. He’d bring loads of presents and we’d have a big welcome home party and after that we’d go for bike rides and play football and go to the beach and play chess and we’d talk and talk…. and then…he didn’t come home.” The boy opened his eyes to find himself gazing into the blue depths of Peter’s. “I named you after him, Peter. I don’t want a new dad…if I can’t have the old one, I’d rather have no dad at all.”
Peter extended his claws in a gesture intended to offer comfort. “Ow! That hurts!” The boy brushed Peter onto the floor and turned on his side, facing the wall. Peter, finding the bedroom door shut, exited via the open window.
“He hates him!” said Peter, later that evening. “We have to get rid of him!”
“No,” said Honey. “She likes him and he helps her. We can’t just get rid of him.”
“But you always run under the bed when he arrives.”
“So do you…”
“Hmmm…. more research needed.” The kittens agreed.
* * * * *
The Man came again the following day. He arrived in the late afternoon in the stupid red sports car, carrying a large box of tools, which he used to make various unpleasantly loud and unwarranted noises by hitting and scraping them against parts of the mother’s car. To get a better view, Honey screwed up her courage and jumped onto the bonnet of the stupid sports car – which was toasty warm and very comfortable. She was unable to resist the urge to lay down and gently grill first one side, then the other, all the while keeping one eye (if that) on The Man and his activities.
“There you go, cat.” She awoke from her doze to find him speaking directly to her. “New brake shoes and some filler for the hole in the exhaust – what do you think?” His hand came towards her and her ears flattened automatically. She couldn’t help it – that fur on his face startled her every time. His hand kept on coming, and it tickled her behind the ears. She was surprised at his gentleness. She noted it down.
The man came again the following day, this time in the stupid green Landrover. From out of the back, he extracted a large orange machine which began to roar and clank and judder, sending Honey flying through the cat door to the safety of the kitchen. Peter was feeling brave that day, but he retreated underneath a dense shrub, from which vantage point he could observe in relative safety. Up and down, up and down the man marched, pushing the noisy machine before him. Once, he paused, bent down and waggled his finger in the grass just in front of the machine’s fearsome blades. A tiny mouse shot across the lawn and disappeared into a flower bed. Then, he continued until he had pushed the machine over every inch of the grass. “There you go, cat.” His face appeared, upside down, in front of Peter. “Could be Versailles, eh?” He reached in and tickled Peter under the chin in a friendly fashion. Peter made a note.
By the end of a week, Peter and Honey had plenty of notes to compare.
“He fixed the car,” said Honey
“He saved the mousie,” said Peter
“He dug in the flower bed to make it easy for the robin to find insects,”
“He cut a hole in the fence so the hedgehogs can get through,”
“He made a little house out of wood just for the bees,”
“He planted catnip in pots, just for us,”
“He did? Where?” demanded Honey.
“So, what’s our conclusion?” asked Peter
Both of them agreed that The Man was probably not so bad and at least deserved a chance. They would spring into action immediately. After dinner…and a nap.
* * * * *
The weekend of the boy’s birthday dawned bright and clear. Spring was very much in the air and both he and his mother sat in the garden – she on the bench at the bottom end, he on an upturned bucket outside the kitchen door. It had been a difficult week. There had been arguments, prolonged silences, slammed doors and tears on both sides. The kittens had been busy, offering comfort to both their humans and, occasionally, taking refuge under the bed when the arguing threatened to get out of hand, but still no agreement had been reached. The boy didn’t want The Man spoiling his birthday. The mother insisted that The Man was coming anyway. The kittens had formulated their strategy, which was simple.
“You take the dog, I’ll take the him…” Peter had said. Honey had grimaced a little, but accepted that this was the way it had to be.
The Man duly arrived, driving the stupid green Landrover, and strode into the garden. The boy kept his head down, refusing to meet his eyes. The lolloping dog – actually a mostly-white Staffie with bright button eyes and a cheery demeanour, followed at his heels and rolled comically onto her back on the grass as he sat down next to the mother. Peter watched as Honey approached the dog. He saw her plant her nose on the dog’s exposed pink belly, causing the dog to roll onto her front, startled. The two animals were nose to nose….Peter hoped for the best. Meanwhile, he approached his young human, rubbed himself round his ankles, then jumped up onto his lap as he sat morosely on his bucket. In the way that only Peter could, he gazed into the boy’s eyes. Deep into them. A thought entered unbidden into the boy’s head and, despite his determination to ignore The Man at all costs, he felt compelled to look across the garden to where Honey was happily licking the white dog’s ear, while the mother and The Man giggled at the sight.
Peter hopped off the boy’s lap and walked down the garden. The mother reached down to caress his ears as she often did but, to her surprise, Peter walked straight past her and sprang instead onto the lap of The Man. The boy watched, taken aback and somewhat jealous, as his cat blatently nose-kissed and scent marked this most unwelcome of visitors. Peter turned in his direction again and a new thought popped uninvited into the boy’s head. He got up from his bucket and found himself walking down the garden, towards the bench, the dog, Honey, Peter, his mother and The Man.
“Hi. Happy Birthday,” said The Man.
“Thanks,” said the boy. He sat down on the bench alongside his mother and Peter immediately moved in to make himself comfortable on his lap. Briefly, boy and cat locked eyes once more. For some reason, the boy felt a little less hostile to The Man – he wasn’t sure why.
“I’ve got some errands to run,” said The Man. “Would you like to come with me?”
“Why?” asked the boy.
“I think you’ll enjoy them.”
His mother smiled and nodded. “Er…OK.” He was rather dubious about this.
He climbed reluctantly into the passenger seat of the stupid green Landrover. The lolloping dog, whose name he learned was Sally, jumped into her compartment behind the seats and they drove off.
“I remember this place!” the boy said, as they arrived at the gate of a forested area a few miles outside the village. “We came on a nature walk when I was at junior school.” He didn’t remember much about it, except that it had been cold, his feet had got wet, but it had been fun to escape the classroom for a couple of hours.
“It’s a nature reserve,” said The Man. “I’m the warden here – that’s my job.”
“Wow!” said the boy. “I thought you were a builder or something.”
“Never assume….” The Man laughed. “Come on – I’ll introduce you to some of my neighbours.”
For the next two hours, boy and man walked around the woods, Sally at their heels, stopping at a rickety looking barn to check on the barn owl who was nesting in a special box near the roof, then peering underneath it with a flashlight to spot the vixen who lay under there, calm but watchful, awaiting the birth of her cubs, then inside the hollow tree, where the light revealed a cluster of what appeared to be small leather drawstring purses stuck to the wood by their strings.
“Horseshoe bats,” The Man explained. “They’re a secret – you must promise never to tell anybody they are there.”
“They’re a protected species. You need a special licence even to view them, let alone handle them. I have to count them regularly to check that the colony is thriving.”
“Wow! What a great job.” said the boy, genuinely impressed.
They carried on with their walk, taking in the badger sett (no badgers to be seen at this time of day) the wooden nesting boxes nailed high up in the trees, a magnificent stag beetle hidden under some damp leaves and plenty of squirrels scuttling about on the forest floor. “Trying to remember where they hid their nuts…” said The Man, laughing.
The boy returned home much happier than when he left. His mother and the cats were still in the garden, but now there was also a big cake and a parcel wrapped in fancy paper on the garden table. The cake turned out to be chocolate, while the parcel contained the longed-for trainers.
“It’s OK,” whispered his mother. “I just moved a few things around…we can manage. How was the nature reserve?”
“Brilliant!” he said. “I’d love to go again some time and see if the barn owl has her chicks and the fox has her cubs and…”
“I hope you will come again,” said the man. “And, to make it a little easier for you…”. He disappeared round the side of the house and returned, wheeling a sturdy looking bicycle. “Look, it’s not new, but I’ve fixed it up and put heavy duty tyres on it and decent gears. It should make a good off-roader.”
The boy was genuinely lost for words. He had long since outgrown his old bike, and there hadn’t been enough money for a new one. His dad had promised to buy him one, of course, but….
Peter hopped up onto the boy’s lap and they touched noses, causing a sharp snap of static.
“Look,” said the man, quietly. “I’m not trying to replace your dad. I can never do that. But, well, grown ups get lonely sometimes and me and your mum – we’re both on our own, so we’re just keeping each other company. And you and me…I reckon we could be good mates. That’s all. Think about it.”
The boy’s vision misted up and he gave a small sniffle. “Thanks for the bike, Tom.”
“You’re very welcome, David.”
* * * * *
The sky was changing from pink to purple as the kittens sat on a small mound of soft grass in the meadow behind the house. They loved to sit here at dusk whenever they could, watching the stars appear one by one in the darkening sky.
“They say that the stars are the eyes of our ancestors.” said Honey, not for the first time.
“Not just our ancestors,” added Peter, “but of all the cats and kittens who have crossed over the bridge.”
They were waiting for their favourite stars to appear.
“Do you think we did good today?” asked Peter.
“Yes, pretty good.” replied Honey. “It wasn’t all us, of course, The Man and his lolloping dog helped..”
“Sally. Her name is Sally.”
The kittens fell silent as familiar stars began to peep through the velvety blueness. They watched for these every night because, fanciful though it probably was, they had the feeling that, somehow, these stars were watching them back. There was the small one that shone with an emerald light and, close by, its larger companion, amber like the flare of a match (the kittens believed that these two were close friends, never to be separated), the tiny twin stars like fiery ruby chips, the glittering diamonds that seemed to dance around each other, full of joy, the cluster of soft pearls that seemed to be the centre of things (wise lady cats, Honey thought)…
“Look,” said Honey, “there’s one more lady cat tonight” and, sure enough, a new star glowed with an inner fire, like an opal. “I wonder who she was….”
The lights were on in the house and the lure of a meal and a comfy spot on the sofa was strong. The muffled sound of laughter drifted through the dusk as the kittens pushed through the gap in the fence and trotted across the garden to their cat door. Far away, just for a moment, the stars seemed to burn a little brighter.
* * * * *
“There you are,” said Tuffy, as they leaned over the edge. “Yes, it’s true that we can leave broken hearts behind us when we leave, but it’s also true that we can help to mend them while we are there. That family still has a long journey ahead of them, but they will have good companions along the road.”
“One piece at a time….” said Peaches, and the two old cats turned their backs on the bridge and walked together through the twilight to the meadow.
We’re really glad you’ve come to stay
Just think of all the games we’ll play.
And how much fun we’ll have together,
I know we’ll be best friends forever.
They’ve sent me here to take you back.
I’ve promised I will stay on track,
So we mustn’t wander off or stray,
Or waste time playing on the way.
Here – put your ear against this tree –
That humming sound’s a bumble Bee.
He really is a dapper fellow
In his velvet coat of black and yellow.
He’ll let you chase him but, if caught
His temper runs a little short.
And so we let him stay ahead
And chase the dragonflies instead.
Then later, when the sun goes down
The moths come out, all plain and brown.
They dance beneath the stars all night
Their wings reflecting silver light
And with them dance the fireflies,
Like tiny golden kittens’ eyes
Around our heads they glow and spark
A fiery ballet in the dark.
Now look at how these dead leaves curl
You can take them to the stream and hurl
Them in the water, where they float –
A fleet of tiny kitten boats.
And if you bend your head and blow,
Away across the stream they go,
Until they reach some distant shore –
An unknown country to explore
And claim for all of Kittenkind
(And anyone we’ve left behind).
Now, this is how we cross the stream,
All roped together as a team,
Battered by the churning foam
Which tries to fling us off this stone
And drag us down into the depths…
No, really we just use these steps.
Across these little rocks we hop
And on the middle one we stop
To skim a stone and make a wish,
But careful not to scare the fish.
And now we’re on the other side
A great savannah, vast and wide
Where lions slink, hyenas lope
And cheetahs chase the antelope,
The zebras graze, the vultures soar
And we must cross – but not before
I’ve scaled the mighty look-out tree
To check it’s safe – what can I see?
A slightly angry Auntie Quark
Who said we must be home by dark
I think we might be slightly late
The other guests won’t want to wait
For potted shrimp and seafood paste
And sardine sandwiches that taste
Like salty oceans on your tongue
And drip with oozy oils that run
Into your fur and make it sticky
(Which can make cleaning up quite tricky.)
Then, after games and cake and pie
We’ll chant your praises to the sky,
And, once she’s sure of who you are
The Lady Moon will light your star.
A tiny point of diamond light
To comfort mama every night.
We’re nearly home – there’s Cindy Lou
And Taps and Rain and Toothless too.
We’re all your sisters, all your brothers,
Uncles, aunties, cousins, mothers…
All here to welcome you with love..
Me? I’m your favourite sister, Dove.
Klondike sat on a flat stone on the edge of the meadow, soaking up warmth from above and below. The sun was high and there was no shade nearby, but he was enjoying the sensation of being slowly and pleasantly cooked from the ears down. He imagined he could hear his fur quietly sizzling. The residual heat from the stone warmed his underside at the same time – he would be done to a turn, he mused, yawning. A honey bee hummed past, followed closely by Ladybug, her tiny legs going full pelt to keep up. All morning, she had been galloping about the meadow, squealing and laughing in delight as she completely failed to catch butterflies, wasps, and damsel flies. Catching them wasn’t really the point. The fun was in the chase. Klondike grinned as she whizzed past again, going in the other direction, having given up on the bee and now intent on bringing down a fat, noisy maybug. For a while, it looked as if Ladybug might actually catch up to her quarry, slow and clumsy as it was, so she stopped her pursuit and flopped down next to her brother, panting slightly from her exertions.
“Do you know?” she said, “If I’d been born in Britain, I’d be called Ladybird.”
“Who told you that?” asked Klondike.
“Er…..a British cat!” she declared. “Ladybugs are called ladybirds in Britain.”
“But you’re named after a card game.” he reminded her.
“Oh…well, maybe card games are called different in Britain too.”
“Maybe. Come on, we’re going for a walk.” Klondike hopped off his stone onto the cool grass and had a good, invigorating stretch – front paws together first, then back paws one at a time.
“Where are we going?” asked Ladybug, eyeing a juicy looking moth as it skittered past.
“To the Bridge.” said her brother. “Keep up, or you’ll get lost.” He strode off, out of the meadow and onto the little rough path that lead to the edge. Neither kitten had been back to the Bridge since they had arrived weeks earlier, tiny and lost, to be greeted by a crowd of cats and kittens who all seemed to be expecting them. The journey from being frightened and lonely to feeling safe and loved was exactly the same length as that taken from the Bridge to the party meadow. Ladybug had made it borne on the back of a huge, shaggy, cream coloured cat, as the welcome committee were afraid that her petite frame and extremely small legs would delay them reaching the sumptuous tea which awaited them. Klondike was proud that he had made the journey on his own feet, but then he was almost twice the size of his sister.
“Why are we going to the Bridge?” asked Ladybug, trotting briskly to keep up with her larger brother.
“Not sure,” he replied. “I just think it’s time we went. We’ll be able to see them, if we dare to take a peek.”
“Our family, of course.”
Ladybug sat down on the path, wide-eyed. “Really? I think that might make me sad.”
“Well, you don’t have to look, but I think you should. I don’t think it’ll make you sad at all.”
They continued on their way, pausing to drink at the little brook, then hopping onto the big stones to cross it, then up the grassy bank which led to the birch glade with its velvety turf and dancing shadows. Bug cheered up when she felt the springy grass under her paws, and pounced and leaped after the fluttering leaves. Seeing her spinning and jumping, full of glee, Klondike was unable to resist the temptation to join in the game, allowing himself, just for a while, to drop his persona as the sensible, responsible one. He was a thoughtful kitten, with wisdom beyond his years and he was very protective of his little sister but, every now and then it did him good to just be a kitten. Eventually, when their leafy prey had all been duly despatched, they emerged from the glade onto the broad greensward which ran along the cliff edge. Right in front of them, they could see the ancient trees whose gnarled and leafless boughs had twisted together to form an archway and, beyond that, the bridge itself, disappearing as always into swirling fog.
Above the chasm, the sky appeared dark, even though it was a bright afternoon where the kittens stood. In that midnight blue expanse they could see a million twinkling stars, one for every soul who had crossed the bridge. They could see their own, like tiny ruby chips close together, red and silver sparks shooting back and forth between them. As usual, the ground close to the bridge was crowded with cats, some awaiting the arrival of friends and loved-ones, some checking up on the homes and families they had left behind. Ladybug and Klondike approached the edge with caution. The ground dropped away vertically like a sheer cliff face and there was nothing below but darkness – it was a scary sight, even though the kittens knew they were safe.
“There!” Klondike pointed excitedly. After several minutes of peering into the void, Ladybug could finally see where he was pointing. “Look, there’s Tommy and Deuces and Diplomat too. And the hoomin!”
“Where’s mama?” asked Bug, craning her neck.
“There she is, behind the boys.”
“What’s happening?” The scene looked unfamiliar. There was light and noise and the room was full of people and bright objects and other cats. Klondike was unable to answer his sister.
“It’s adoption day.” The kittens turned to see an adult cat, whose face was familiar although they couldn’t recall her name right now. “Keiara” she reminded them. “I come here often – usually I come to check up on two young friends of mine who went back over recently. But I also come for adoption days. They make me so happy.”
“What does it mean?” asked Klondike.
“It’s when a kitten or a cat gets to go home with a special hoomin. They live together and they take care of each other and have wonderful lives. Your mama and brothers are being adopted today. Each of them will go to a new home with a hoomin who really wants them, and they will get good food, warm beds, lots of toys and lots of love. It’s just the best life. It’s lovely here, but sometimes I miss my hoomin.”
“Will we still be able to see mama and our brothers after dopshun?” asked Ladybug, her lip wobbling a little.
“Of course. You can watch them grow up and become big, handsome boys.”
“I wish we were being dopted…” Ladybug’s lip continued to wobble. “It sounds lovely.”
For a long time, the pair watched, fascinated, as their family crouched patiently in their cage while the people milled around them, occasionally reaching in to pet them. Then, one by one, they were lifted out and each was handed to a hoomin to cuddle. Even though the kittens had little experience of people, they could see the joy and love written on their faces as they held their new babies for the first time.
“It must be wonderful to have hoomins love you so much…” Klondike mused.
“Yes, it is.” said Keiara. “Maybe one day…..who knows?” She smiled at them, then blew a kiss over the precipice to her own special person, before turning and walking back towards the birch glade.
The family were all gone. Dopshun day was over, but the kittens continued to watch and wonder what it must be like to be loved so much by creatures so different from themselves. But then…something else was happening. Someone was speaking…and handing something to the big hoomin…..
“Listen, Bug,” said Klondike, “We’ve been adopted.”
“What? Who? Who dopted us?”
“Lots of people. Even though they could never meet us and hold us and have us scratch their furniture and bite their toes…they still wanted us.”
“Yay! We’re dopted!” Ladybug hopped and bounced and chased her own tail in celebration. “Hoomins are wonderful!”
“Yes, they are aren’t they?” Klondike gazed with awe as the little presentation concluded. He closed his eyes and he truly believed he could feel their love washing over him.
It was two satisfied kittens who made their way back that evening. Ladybug was full of excitement as usual, bursting to tell their friends that they were now dopted kittens with a huge hoomin family over on the other side. Klondike pondered. He wanted to say thank you somehow, but he wasn’t sure how. Maybe it didn’t matter – such caring hoomins would surely understand… He looked up to the now darkening sky and smiled. That would do.
So that night, when the moon was at her highest, if those special hoomins had cared to look upwards (as many like to do), they would have seen two stars, like tiny ruby chips, flashing red and silver fire towards them as two contented kittens curled up to sleep, happy in the knowledge that they were remembered with love.
Peter sat on a log on the fringes of the meadow and watched while Honey and her kitten companions chased each other in and out of the long grass, disappearing behind the tussocks and reappearing, laughing, sometimes bobbing their heads up above the stalks to get their bearings and to check whether their companions were within pouncing range. He smiled at their antics. It looked like a good game, and it was one in which he often enjoyed participating but, today, he was content to sit in the warm sunshine on the hollow log and watch.
He took a deep breath in. The air, as ever, carried the scents of new-mown hay, lilac, damp earth and that familiar, far-off salt tang. The sun was exactly as warm as he liked it – warm enough to heat the fur but not so hot as to sap the energy. Sometimes, he liked to bake under a hot sun, so he would just remove himself to where the sun was hottest. Sometimes, he had a fancy for watching the rain, and there was somewhere he could go to do that too. There were napping spots which were soft and napping spots which were firm. Indoor beds where he could be cosy and outdoor beds where he could lay and watch the stars. There was never any shortage of food – which was the tastiest and most succulent food any cat could imagine, or water – which was as sweet and pure as nectar and could be sipped from any number of rivers, rivulets, streams, fountains, waterfalls, pools and puddles.
In this place, there was no pain or sickness, no physical discomfort, no want or hardship, but there was still free thought. There was emotion too. Sometimes, someone would feel unhappy, or homesick for a past life, or they would feel the need for solitude or companionship and, for a kitten who overstepped the mark, there was discipline. Peter himself had often been on the receiving end of a squeak from an angry playmate or a cuff from an irritated adult. He had a way to go before he reached Honey’s total though. That girl was incorrigible.
The game of chase had morphed into a giant bug hunt. He could see his friends spotting their targets, flattening themselves against the ground and shifting their weight from foot to foot in preparation for the deadly pounce. The bugs always got away. Honey was flying through the air, trying to bring down a dragonfly – which also got away – and laughing her tinkling laugh. There was rarely a time when Honey didn’t laugh. Nothing seemed to dampen her high spirits.
Yes, life here was good. It was better than good – it was wonderful. But, every now and then, Peter felt a tiny tug in his heart that he did not quite understand. It had begun the night of his birthday party, when he had looked down to see his two brothers, now fully grown, sleek and handsome and so clearly loved by their human family, as well as by their own mother – Peter’s mother. He had thought at the time that maybe, just maybe, it would be nice to experience life as a grown-up and to try out the actual growing up part, too. He had also thought that it would be nice to live alongside a loving human family. He had a faint, residual memory of his short time in a human household. He remembered the feel of a human hand, the sound of a human voice and now he was curious – a little. It was just a thought that popped into his mind every now and then, while sunning himself on a log for instance, or sometimes just as he was falling asleep under the stars. The thought never persisted long, and it would disappear from his mind as swiftly as it had appeared, and he would go back to sunning himself or dozing without any worries…until the next time.
Honey came bouncing over to him, eyes shining, her grey fur stiff with burrs and a dandelion clock stuck to the top of her head like a fancy hat.
“Aren’t you going to join in?” she demanded, trying to dislodge the dandelion clock with her back foot.
“I’m happy to sit and watch.”
“What are you thinking about?” He knew by her tone of voice that “Nothing” was not an acceptable answer.
“Do you ever wonder what life would’ve been like if we hadn’t – you know, come here?” he asked.
“Yes, of course” she said, to his mild surprise. “I think everyone thinks about it, especially we kittens. It’s not the same as the old cats – they miss their old homes and their old hoomins, but at least they have memories to cherish. We kittens never had that. We missed out on a lot.”
Peter felt comforted to know that he was not the only one to ponder about “what if”. He stood up and stretched, a full arched-back stretch – standing up right on his tiptoes and turning his spine into an upturned U. That was the best sort of stretch. Feeling the muscles unwinding from his nose right through to his tail, he felt suddenly re-energised and leapt off the log and ran to join in the bug hunt, flattening, wiggling and pouncing along with the rest of the kittens. The bugs still got away.
Later that day, as the air began to cool and the sky began to pinken, they were making their way back along the path to where they knew they would find a good meal, a brisk baff from one of the adults – someone was going to have fun picking out those burrs – and the comfort of their companions, when they were stopped in their tracks by two cats who they did not recognise.
“You’re wanted,” said one of them, “back in the meadow”.
The two kittens turned around, mystified, and headed back to the meadow where they had been playing moments earlier. When they arrived, they were startled to find a sizeable assemblage of cats, familiar and unfamiliar, all sitting round in a semi-circle. Their escorts ushered the kittens to a spot in front of the crowd and bade them sit down. They looked at each other, baffled and a little nervous.
“Don’t worry,” said a voice, “you’re not in trouble for once.” The voice belonged to Truffles, an old cat who had arrived after them, but who was treated with much respect by all the others. She was a quiet, polite lady but, when she spoke, others listened. She was accompanied everywhere by the enormous, shaggy Loki, who had been her friend on the other side and who was rarely far away from her. The kittens adored Loki. He was like a big, benign uncle who tolerated having his whiskers pulled, his tail chewed and trying to sleep with three or four of the smallest kittens snuggled up in his long fur, squeezing their tiny claws into his flesh.
“What’s going on?” asked Honey.
“Well, for you and Peter, the time has come to make The Choice”
“What choice?” asked Honey.
“May I suggest,” Truffles replied, firmly, “that you stay quiet for once and let the adults talk?”
Honey slumped a little, deflated, until she caught a glimpse of Loki’s twinkling eye winking at her. Truffles began again.
“The Choice is offered to all who live here, cat or kitten, provided they have lives left to live. You will have heard it said that we cats have nine lives – even the hoomins have heard this, but they do not understand exactly what it means. When our earthly lives are over, we cross the bridge and we live in this place, healthy and happy and with everything our hearts desire. The one drawback is that we never change over here. Kittens remain kittens, the old remain old. For some, this is a happy state of affairs, but for others – especially the young – it is unsatisfying. They often yearn for another chance at earthly life, to experience new things or to complete a journey which was cut short before. We all have nine chances to do that, to go back, and I know you have both been thinking about it.” Honey and Peter looked at each other, wide-eyed. How did she know? Had they been talking in their sleep? Best not to ask. Truffles went on.
“Please know that you are not obliged to return. You can stay here for as long as you wish. Forever, if you like, or you can choose to return later rather than sooner. However, the time has come for the two of you to make The Choice. You both have eight further lives to live and you can choose to do so the other side of the bridge if you wish. Now, we understand that your previous lives were cut short very early and you don’t have many experiences to draw on when trying to decide. So, some of our friends here have agreed to tell you of their experiences on earth. The one thing that is certain is that, if you return, it will be to the world of the hoomin. Listen to their stories and then think carefully about what they tell you of the hoomin world, it’s benefits and its drawbacks. Now, sit down and make yourselves comfortable. And don’t interrupt…” she looked directly at Honey when she said this. “You may ask whatever questions you wish at the end…when there will also be snacks.”
Still a little bewildered, but placated by the promise of snacks, the kittens settled down as instructed and prepared to listen.
A pale cat stepped up. She was one of the unfamiliar cats who had waylaid Honey and Peter on the path and only now did they notice how exotically beautiful she was. Her fur was the colour of cream, shading through gold to russet on her flanks and legs. She was tall and fine boned, with chiselled cheeks and a long, sharp muzzle. Her eyes were the colour of a setting sun and the shape of almonds, sweeping upwards towards her large, magnificent ears. She spoke in a voice like melted chocolate.
“My last life on earth was spent in a land of dust and sand, which lay parching under a blazing sun. Beneath the azure sky, the very horizon would shimmer in the heat and the eyes would be tricked into seeing things that were not there. In the middle of the day, the sand would seem to be transformed into a silvery lake, although there was no water to be found for miles. The air would be full of the whine of the relentless, hot wind, the strange echoes of the sand dunes as they shifted and the occasional, piercing shriek of an eagle as it scoured the land, searching for something – anything- to eat.”
The kittens closed their eyes, transported in their minds to the burning, empty desert.
“Running through this land, however, was a great river. Every year it broke its banks and the land was flooded for many, many miles and it was this flood that transformed the fringes of this river into a fertile plain where plants and trees grew and animals and birds thrived and, naturally, it was ripe for exploitation by humans. They came in abundance and multiplied and cultivated their crops and raised their animals and built villages and towns and cities with great temples and statues. They had powerful kings who believed themselves to be gods and they had priests who grew fat by encouraging the kings to believe they were gods, but, for the people, life was good, food was plentiful and the climate benign and so a great civilisation flourished. These people, and their priests and their kings, had the good sense to include some animals amongst their pantheon of gods, such as the bull and the hawk and…well, let’s face it….me.
I was born in a village outside the capital city, close to the site where many men laboured to build a great stone temple to the beautiful cat goddess Bastet. I was one of many kittens, but it was the general consensus that I was the most beautiful. I was housed and fed by a stonemason and his family. It was he who was responsible for creating a great statue of the Goddess to stand in the hall of the temple on a huge sandstone plinth and, as I grew from kitten to cat, he made many images of me, using pigment made from powdered rock mixed with lamp oil. He painted me from every angle and in many poses, laying asleep, standing alert, sitting with my paws tucked under, but mostly he drew me sitting as I am now, my head proud and my eyes gazing towards the horizon.”
By way of a demonstration, the cat sat neatly, paws together, tail curled round her feet, and then drew herself up so that her body formed a silhouette the shape of a teardrop. Lifting her chin, she gazed into the distance with a haughty expression. So noble did she look that Honey and Peter almost felt compelled to bow down in worship before her, but instead she relaxed, smiled and winked at the two kittens, before resuming her speech.
“When most of the fabric of the temple was complete, my stonemason set to work. He had shown the images he had painted of me to the priests who were overseeing the design of the temple and they had indicated their approval and so, taking a great slab of black basalt rock and his trusty wooden hammer and bronze chisel, he began to tap, tap, tap away at the stone. First he incised some guidelines to indicate a rough shape and then, with the aid of his two sons, began to chip away the unwanted surfaces until, gradually, little by little, a shape began to emerge from within. My shape. Over the course of many months, the three worked away at the stone, shaping and refining until, at last, instead of the crude black rock pillar, there stood a magnificent cat. She still needed to be polished smooth, and that task took several more months but, by the turn of the year, the statue of Bastet was ready to be moved into her final position inside the great hall of the temple. She was moved with great care by many men using wooden sledges, then ropes and pullies. At last, our beloved goddess of love, motherhood, war and justice stood upon her plinth, looking out between the columns of the great hall, towards the mighty river. There she stood for century after century, tended by priests and priestesses, visited in secret by many cats seeking aid or comfort, and worshipped by all who passed by the temple. Thereafter, the same image appeared over the years in infinite forms – in pictures, statuettes, jewellery…. all of them me. I spent my life both as a humble but beloved house cat and as an object of worship for an entire civilisation. For me, earthly life could not give me more than that – any future life would only disappoint, my expectations having been raised so high, you see. So, I will not be returning. My future lies here.”
The exotic cat bowed low to the two kittens and to Truffles before withdrawing into the crowd. They could still see her, standing as she did half a head taller than most of the others. Another, very different looking cat took up position in front of them. She was tiny, black and somewhat ragged. Her ear was notched and she sported scars around one of her eyes. Her tail had a sharp, angular kink towards its tip and her whiskers splayed in all directions. Her earthly life had clearly been very different from that of the temple cat. When she spoke, it was in a small, breathy voice that the kittens had to strain to hear.
“My last life on earth was on a small island in the north of Europe during what the hoomins refer to as the Middle Ages. It was a dark and primitive time. Most of the people were desperately poor and barely scraped enough from the land to feed their families. Most of the food they laboured to produce had to be handed to the local baron, so the peasants went without. They were oppressed by the nobility, oppressed by the church and oppressed by life in general, so I guess I can’t really blame them for turning to supersition and witchcraft as a way to explain their lot. It was a bad time to be a cat. It was an especially bad time to be born a black cat. We were persecuted as being the familiars of witches, who were themselves considered to be the servants of the Devil. Many were slain by some terrible means in order to rid the world – so the hoomins thought – of evil.
My hoomin mistress was an old widow lady who lived in a hut made of dried mud and straw at the edge of a village on the eastern side of the island. It was a flat land of marshes and creeks where, even in the summer, the wind blew relentlessly from the sea, so that the trees and bushes grew bent over, as if they were trying to escape its constant howl. The local people toiled away digging great ditches to drain away some of the water so that they could cultivate the soil and grow grain and vegetables, even though most of these were given as tithes to the manor house and to the church. Ah…the church. It was a great building of men, which rose out of the flat landscape and towered over the huts and hovels of the peasants, as if to remind them daily of their position in the grand scheme of things. On Sundays, the whole village walked, limped, or shuffled in a convoy to the church to listen while the priests shouted hellfire and damnation at them, told them they would all go to hell for their sins and that they should repent their ways if they did not wish to be personally responsible for bringing about the Apocalypse. They even had to stand outside the church and peer in through small windows in the walls to be threatened and terrified like this. They were too lowly and insignificant even to be allowed through the doors. So ignorant and uneducated were they, that they believed all of this and so tried at all times, out of fear, to do whatever they were told to do by those they considered their betters. It made me sad.
My mistress, though, was one of those who saw the truth. She did not attend the church, she did not pay their tithes and she did not fear God or the devil. Unable to work the land due to her frail old age, she would dispense crude medicines made from herbs in exchange for bread and, sometimes, she would wave around a small bundle of bound hazel twigs and utter incantations for young women anxious to conceive a child, or to lure a certain neighbour’s son into marriage. For this, my mistress received maybe a couple of eggs or some turnips. She would cackle quietly at the gullibility of some of her “clients”, but at least she ate. Then, one night, a party of villagers arrived at the hut bearing flaming brands, which they used to burn the place down – we did not know why. Maybe one of the young women gave birth to a daughter instead of a son, or the neighbour’s boy married someone from the next village instead, but thereafter we had to tramp the countryside together, barely surviving on the food she could gather and I could catch. She would still dispense her herbs and chant her incantations, but when she had finished, instead of receiving bread, the local children would run us out of the village, hurling insults and rocks at the same time. Crouched in the shelter of a hedgerow one freezing winter’s night, she took me in her arms and said to me that her time had come to depart this earth, and that she was not afraid as the great Mother Hecate was waiting to receive her and would avenge her soul in this life and the next. I did not understand what she meant, but I did not want to be left alone in that cold and hostile world so, when my mistress uttered a last incantation and cast herself into the freezing river and I watched, with my own eyes, pale hands come up and catch her and bear her down into the depths – or maybe it was my imagination – I threw myself in after her.”
The kittens were mesmerised and wide-eyed with astonishment and shock at the black cat’s tale. Honey could think of a million questions to ask her, but she was still speaking.
“And yet, I have chosen to return. I had the misfortune to live in a hostile world, but I knew love from my hoomin who, I realise now, was unusual in that she could speak to me in my own language. But, anyway, I have faith that there is a better world to be found now and I wish to know the love of a hoomin once again. But maybe not a witch, this time…”
The black cat bowed and withdrew, leaving the kittens confused. “But….” stammered Honey, “…the cat who had the wonderful life wants to stay here and the cat who had the terrible life wants to go back….”
“Nothing is straightforward, you see,” said Truffles. “You must follow your hearts. You will know if you have made the right choice, I promise. Now, I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m starving…”
Confused though they were, the kittens’ appetites were unaffected, and they tucked into the considerable spread with gusto. Loki sat down beside them, smacking his lips after consuming a plate of pilchards. Peter looked up at the big, shaggy cat and asked “If we went back, would Honey and I still be together?”
“I don’t think there are any guarantees,” he replied. “If you opt for another life, you get what you get, if you see what I mean. The cats who spoke to you had experienced both extremes, good and bad. For most, though, life is more mundane. Take me and Tuffy, for instance. Our home was just an ordinary house, in an ordinary suburb, but it was better than the temple of Bastet to us, and our hoomins were just ordinary people who loved us – as we loved them, but they were better to us than priests or kings or witches. They made us happy, and I don’t think there is any finer state on that side of the bridge or this than to be happy. Tuffy and I don’t need any other memories. The memories of that life are sweet enough but, maybe one day…who knows? You, on the other hand, have yet to acquire any memories. I can’t imagine what that must be like.” Loki turned his attention to washing his face and paws and the images continued to whirl in the minds of the kittens.
It was dark by the time the meeting broke up, and the moon was on the rise. It was a warm night and the breeze was gentle and fragrant. The two kittens walked in silence to the place where they usually liked to sleep ignoring, for once, the fireflies that danced around their heads. Usually, they would find a good spot – a soft mound of grass, an indentation in the earth underneath a bush, or maybe a flat rock still warm from the sun, and they would settle down together and chatter, play and snooze the night away. On this night, though, they went their separate ways and each curled up alone – although still within sight of one another – both feeling that they needed solitude and silence in which to ponder the evening’s events.
Peter lay on his back in the grass and watched the stars – there was his and Honey’s, tiny diamond chips seeming to almost touch each other. There was Tuffy’s emerald star and beside it Loki’s amber one, there was Jaguar’s and Siberia’s sparkling like fire and Keiara’s and Sheba’s, soft like pearls…he idly wondered what happened to these stars if you went back. Did they disappear for a while, to reappear again on your return? He sniffed the scented air. Tomorrow would be another perfect day and he and Honey could spend it chasing bugs in the meadow with their friends if they wanted, or they could dip for fishes in the stream or climb trees or just bask in the sun, but…. there it was again. That tiny tug in his heart, as if an invisible thread connected him to the earth on the other side. This was impossible! How did anyone ever choose? He yawned and rolled over, tired of thinking. It was unlike him to be unable to sleep, but something was keeping him awake…something not quite right. He heard a soft rustle in the grass beside him and felt a warm, familiar body – still a little lumpy with burrs – lay down close to his. The Choice could wait for now. They snuggled up and drifted into sleep.
It was warm and dark in the nest, and safe. There was nothing to see, nothing to hear, just the comforting scent of mama and the soothing vibration of her purr. And nothing to do but eat, sleep and grow. Nothing to sense but the reassurance of another heartbeat close by…and the trace of a memory, faint, like a tiny star in the farthest reaches of space..
The young woman sat on the sofa, smiling as her son dangled the feather on a stick just out of reach of the kittens, giggling as they leapt into the air to grab for it before landing with a thud, feet splayed out on the wooden floor.
“He’s good with them.” the older woman said. “Not everyone is, but he’s a natural. They’re really comfortable around him.”
“He loves animals,” his mother replied. “He’s just never had any of his own before. His dad wasn’t keen, what with us moving around so much. But, now it’s just the two of us….”, There was a short silence which spoke a thousand words.
The boy was laying on his stomach, laughing as four of the kittens swarmed all over him, grabbing his hair and licking his face and ears. The fifth kitten hung back a little, preferring to play alone and he was chewing experimentally at the boy’s sock, in the hope that it tasted like chicken.
“You know these four are already spoken for,” said the older woman, “and their mother. The only one still looking for a home is that little guy.” She detached the small, cream-coloured kitten from the boy’s foot.
“He’s really cute,” said the mother. “I’m surprised he hasn’t been snapped up.”
“Well, we encourage people to adopt in pairs, but when there’s a litter of five, it means one will be adopted alone. It’s a shame, but they usually adapt.”
“Oh, he wouldn’t be alone,” the mother said. “We adopted another kitten about a month ago – it was on our application form. She’s very sweet, but she seems bored and a little depressed, if that’s possible. She sleeps a lot. We thought a playmate might cheer her up.”
“Well, it would certainly cheer me up to think he would have a friend,” said the woman. “What does your son think?”
“Do you like this little guy?” she asked
“Well, he’s not as much fun as the others,” said the boy, “but maybe he’s a bit overshadowed by his brothers and sisters. Let me hold him for a bit.” The boy took the kitten in his cupped hands and lifted him up to his face. A pair of placid blue eyes looked into his. They looked deep into his. And they spoke to him. And he knew.
“If you don’t want him, we can keep on looking.” said his mother.
“No. This one’s mine.” said the boy, solemnly. “He told me so.”
“Sometimes they do that.” said their foster mother, and she was absolutely serious.
The women shook hands and said their goodbyes, and the boy clutched on tightly to the cardboard carrier containing it’s oh so precious cargo. In the car on the way home, He peered in through the air holes at its tiny occupant, who clung with all his claws to the towel at the bottom of the box, his eyes closed tight in fear.
“Mum, can I call the kitten after Dad?” the boy asked.
Involuntarily, she bit her lip. “Why would you want to do that?”
“I don’t know. It’s a nice name and it suits him, and…well, I think this kitten is special. He’s going to look after us.”
His mother smiled. “OK. I think he’s pretty special too.”
The boy peered into the box again and whispered to its worried little occupant, “Don’t be frightened, Peter. We’re going to have such fun!”
Late that night when the house was quiet, Peter the kitten sat alone in the small box room which was his temporary home. He had everything he could possibly need – bowls of food and water, a litter box, a scratching post, a comfy bed and lots of toys – but an odd feeling was keeping him awake. He felt as if, just maybe, he had been here before. Or somewhere similar. Try as he might, he couldn’t make his memory stretch back further than the last ten weeks.
A tiny sound near the door caught his attention.
“Pssst…” There is was again. He went to investigate.
“Hello.” said a muffled voice from the other side of the door. “Are you going to live here?”
“Yes,” he said. “Who are you?”
“I live here too. I can’t wait to meet you – it’s been a bit lonely here on my own.” A small grey paw appeared beneath the door, so he pressed his own against it.
And there it was again. The trace of a memory, faint, like a tiny star in the farthest reaches of space…. For a second, his head was full of visions of butterflies exploding in swarms out of the long meadow grass and night skies full of stars.
“Do you feel that?” said the grey kitten, “It’s like we were meant to be together. Oh, we’re going to have such fun!” She laughed, and her laugh was like the tinkling of a tiny bell.